The Book Thief is told from a perspective not often seen in films set in or around World War 2, that of the average German citizen.
The lack of material on this group’s experience is hardly surprising. It’s a difficult topic, one that requires a delicate balance between understanding the circumstances of why people would commit such horrible atrocities without going so far as to excuse them.
The Book Thief does its best in this regard. But while it bravely tackles a difficult setting, it does so in a way that never quite probes the depths laying just underneath its surface. The film is quite willing to depict a country that has lost its way, but not so willing to explore just how exactly it got there.
Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, The Book Thief follows young Leisel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a poor girl given up by her mother shortly before the onset of World War 2. We follow her life in her new home on a quaint little street in Germany as she quickly makes friends with her neighbour Rudy (Nico Liersch) and learns to read. Through her eyes we witness Nazi Germany—the book burnings, the SS, the vehement rhetoric.
It’s not too long into her stay that her foster parents—tough yet tender Rosa (Emily Watson) and kind hearted Hans (Geoffrey Rush)—take a young Jewish refugee named Max into their protection. Before long a friendship sparks between Max and Leisel, though the threat of the SS finding him places the two of them in almost constant danger.
On one hand, it’s a relatively nice story about the risks some people were willing to take to protect those being persecuted by the Nazis. Leisel is a wonderful enough character (Sophie Nélisse delivers a great performance) and witnessing the vitriol through the eyes of a child who is just a tad too young to understand is a wonderful way to explore the setting.
On the other hand, the film never really seems to try to say anything with the story. None of what we’re seeing here is anything that hasn’t been covered a million times before. The movie meanders through all of the many aspects of life in Germany over World War 2, but this never coalesces into a broader theme.
Its main characters are generally kind hearted individuals who don’t care much at all for Nazis. That makes for likeable leads, but it does little to address the broader complacency of the German population. How otherwise normal people could be complicit in what was happening. Fear is the main explanation offered. And while that may have been a big part of it, I would have preferred a little more nuance.
The film also seems to gloss over the brutality of the war at times. In most instances this isn’t too much of a problem. We’re not on the front lines, we’re in a small German town. But there are times, such as the brutal treatment of the Jewish people or the bombings of German cities where it becomes a problem. In most instances, this wouldn’t bother me. But I think in these cases there is a broader responsibility to depict these things for what they are—brutal and messy.
Ironically, the film is oddly narrated by Death. It’s the kind of thing that very well may have worked in the book, but just seems out of place in the movie. The voiceover is used sparingly enough, but that’s also part of the problem. Given that the majority of the movie is told through the eyes of Leisel it feels a little off tone for an old British man to interject into the proceedings just every now and again.
Now with that said, Death’s narration did provide a few poignant moments near film’s end, so it wasn’t all bad.
That really is the story of The Book Thief though. It tackles some brave subject matter and provides a few stirring moments here and there, but it fails to reach its full potential as a broader commentary on the capacity of humans for evil. Without that latter element, something about it just feels lacking.