"The Book Thief" is based on a novel set in Nazi-era Germany, narrated by none other than Death himself. And by doing so, the film does an amazing thing: it softens the pain of the era.
Death may be the narrator, but the protagonist is a young girl named Leisel (played by newcomer Sophie Nelisse).
Leisel is among the most miserable of preteens. She has been relocated to a new city after her mother sent her and her younger brother away. But her brother dies on the train ride over, and her new adoptive mother Rosa (Emily Watson) seems more jilted than bereaved. Leisel gets mocked at school because she never learned to read or write, and looming behind it all is the foreboding imagery of Nazi Germany.
Still, there are positives. Her adoptive father Hans (Geoffrey Rush), an underemployed painter, offers a kind counterpoint to Rosa's gruffness. And a tow-headed neighbor boy Rudy (Nico Liersch) seems to have developed a crush on her, so Leisel manages to toughen up and get on with her new life.
The first act introduces a unique perspective: the day-to-day life going on within the Nazi regime while the storm gathers. The narrative of "The Book Thief" begins in 1938, and as time moves on, the context of Leisel's personal struggles overwhelms them.
In the streets children parade the news of the war with England. After Hans helps her learn to read and write, a dramatic book burning inspires Leisel's passion for literature and storytelling.
Finally, Hans and Rosa take in a mysterious stranger, a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer), whose family has fallen victim to the Holocaust. Max is hidden first in the attic, and then in the basement. As she watches her adoptive parents' efforts, Leisel begins to understand the depths of the horrors that surround her.
The title of the film (and Markus Zusak's book) is taken from a subplot that seems comparatively small next to the tapestry of events that shares its screen time. While Max is holed up in the family home, Leisel begins smuggling books to him from the library of the local Buergmeister. In return, Max eventually offers Leisel a cherished book of his own in one of the film's most poignant scenes.
Though Leisel is given the protagonist's narrative arc, Watson's character is probably the best characterization in the film. She plays a harsh and stern woman, so unlikable early on that her strained contrast to her husband becomes a running gag. As she takes in Max, and struggles to offset the financial burden of her family, Rosa becomes one of the brightest heroes of a story that is packed full of them.
As a film set in Nazi-era Germany, it is no surprise that death awaits more than one principal character. But here is where personifying Death as an actual character (if only a narrator) has a fascinating effect.
Rather than emphasize the blunt horror of death, the narration (handled by Roger Allam) puts the focus on the persistence of life, not to justify or minimize the acts of brutality, but to suggest that for these characters, death is a rescue, and a door from one horrible world into a much more restful alternative. Maybe this only works because so many other films have cemented the horrors of Nazi Germany in one's memory, but the final effect is to leave the viewer with a sense of hope, and frankly, it softens the blow of a third act that would have been far more traumatic otherwise.
"The Book Thief" is not an easy film to watch, and its periodic demonstrations of Nazi brutality (though far from graphic) earn the film's PG-13 rating. While it may not be suitable for young children, "The Book Thief" may be one of the best films for families that will play through the holiday season. It is alternately charming, heartbreaking and inspiring, acutely aware of the horrors of mortality, yet somehow able to transcend them.
"The Book Thief" is rated PG-13 for scenes and images of violence.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.