Liesel Meminger begins the life of her mind the night she rescues a smoldering book from the dying embers of a bonfire. Nine-year-old Liesel (played by Sophie Nélisse), in her Hitler Youth uniform, is part of the crowd on November 9, 1938, celebrating the Kristallnacht — the violent Nazi-organized pogrom against Jews and all things Jewish — with a joyous burning of "degenerate, decadent" books in the town square. However, something deep inside Liesel is attracted to books in general, no matter who wrote them, and she's already made up her mind against Hitler, despite what she's been taught in school. And so, after everyone has gone home to bed and the square is empty, she picks up the half-baked volume of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man and takes it home with her, still smoking under her coat.
"Liesel Meminger" is a fictional character, and The Book Thief, directed by British TV vet Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) from a screenplay by Michael Petroni, is an adaptation of the bestselling novel of the same name by Australian author Markus Zusak. From that English-language pedigree and the involvement of such behind-the-camera talent as composer John Williams, we could be excused for expecting Liesel's story to be a typical Hollywood-style WWII "inspirational" fable, warm and cuddly when it's not dwelling on fascist brutality — the legend of a "good German girl" who stands up to the Nazis, hides a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) in her basement, and goes to heaven in a cloud of righteousness.
That pretty much happens. But there are more dimensions to The Book Thief, chiefly in the expressive, soulful eyes of its thirteen-year-old French-Canadian lead actor Nélisse (Monsieur Lazhar), but also in the vivid character acting of the rest of the cast, the superior production values, and Zusak's gracefully grim narrative structure.
The girl is illiterate when she arrives at the doorstep of childless foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), who take her in because Liesel's mother, a communist, is "going away," perhaps to nearby Dachau camp. Watson's Rosa is a marvelous portrayal of the classic tough-but-fair hausfrau whose favorite label for everyone around her is Saukerl or Saumensch (slang for "bastard"). It becomes a family joke, quite different than the case of Liesel's classmates mocking her for her lack of formal education. Rush lends his customary kindly presence as accordion-playing housepainter Hans, who teaches his new daughter to appreciate literature.
The little working-class family cares for sickly Jewish refugee Max at great risk to themselves, all because his father saved Hans' life in the previous world war. Three good Germans who hang the swastika banners and wear the uniforms but keep their thoughts to themselves. And Liesel is the one to carry on their dreams. There are more rebels: Liesel's friend Rudy the track athlete (Nico Liersch), who idolizes the black American sprinter Jesse Owens, and Frau Hermann (Barbara Auer), the burgermeister's wife, from whose well-stocked library Liesel "borrows" book after book.
The depiction of everyday routine in a small German town under the Third Reich (shot at Studio Babelsberg outside Berlin) is minutely detailed, fully the equal of anything by R.W. Fassbinder, Fritz Lang, Roman Polanski, Volker Schlöndorff, or Steven Spielberg. The townsfolk are hanging on for dear life, heiling Hitler and sneaking peeks at forbidden storybooks while living in a state of constant terror, jumping every time there's a knock at the door. In that atmosphere it's utterly appropriate for the unseen narrator to be Death himself (the voice of actor Roger Allam), who wryly describes himself as one of Hitler's most obedient servants. We always thought it was the other way around.