“The Book Thief” — directed by Brian Percival (A Boy Called Dad) and based on the novel by Markus Zusak — might just be the most heart-warming movie about Nazis ever made. Told through the eyes of a young orphan name Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni (The Rite) craft an emotionally complex tragedy. Filled with plenty of charming performances and a story that is overflowing with life and humor, the film tells the fictional tale of one of the most overlooked aspects of World War Two: common German citizens. Despite suffering from being slightly overly sentimental at times, the picture is nonetheless thoroughly entertaining and will surely attract the attention of Oscar voters early next year.
With the omniscient presence of Death itself acting as narrator, we are first introduced to the sweet yet spunky Liesel on a train headed to her new home. Liesel is an orphan, and when she first meets her new parents — the kindhearted Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and the firm-spirited Rosa (Emily Watson) — she is so terrified she can hardly speak. The girl soon warms up to her new family, and even learns how to read and write in the process. Yet, with the horrors of World War Two slowly approaching, her new German community is completely on edge. With the help of her new best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch), young Liesel finds solace by stealing books and sharing them with others. All the while, under the stairs in her home, a Jewish refugee is being sheltered by her adoptive parents.
Thirteen-year-old Hollywood newcomer Sophie Nelisee is an absolute showstopper as a pre-teen coming of age during one of the most turbulent eras in history. Sharing the screen with Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine) and two time Oscar nominated actress Emily Watson (War Horse), Nelisee delivers a profound performance. The actress, along with her on-screen crush Rudy (Nico Liersch), definitely carry a presence that is mature beyond their years. The two experience the intricacies of love and friendship together; yet also face the added pressure of living life on the verge of combat. In the crazy world of Academy voting, Nelisee could be a dark horse addition to the best actress category. Who knows, anything is possible.
Another fresh face — Ben Schnetzer — puts himself on the Hollywood map with his take on Max, the strong-willed Jew that finds himself living in Hans and Rosa’s basement. Picking the right balance between grim and socially conscious, Max discovers the perfect companion in Liesel. The character pushes the girl to think outside of her comfort zone. He also helps expand her creative breadth through daily weather updates, which is something he cannot physically experience because he is too afraid to leave the house. Max is just a young man of no more than 25 years of age, but Schnetzer balances the character’s vulnerability with an unrelenting will to survive. The end result is overwhelmingly mature.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, veterans Rush and Watson provide plenty of sarcasm and hilarity as longtime soul mates Hans and Rosa. Rush is effortless in his role, and makes his warm countenance look as if it were second nature. Watson, on the other hand, delivers a much more layered turn as the insensitive mother with a hidden, but nonetheless beating, heart. The two are just as affected by the encroaching war as Liesel, but the couple constantly downplays the situation for the sake of their new daughter.
The beauty of Petroni and Percival’s storytelling is that never once does the viewer see the central characters as being Nazis. Even though Rudy and Liesel attend a Nationalist school that teaches all things Hitler, the audience can find the universally good spirit inside these people. Simply put; Liesel, Rudy, Hans, and Rosa are just regular folk put into an unfortunate situation during a very confused time.
If “The Book Thief” were a true story, instead of a work of fiction, Percival’s film would easily find itself among the top movies of the year. Unfortunately, because the third act is so over the top dramatic and sad, I couldn’t help but feel like my emotions were being taken advantage of. Percival and Petroni achieve their intended message — Germans are humans too. The two filmmakers could’ve left it at that, but instead went for overkill. There is a lot to like about “The Book Thief,” but no one enjoys what is essentially 20 minutes of emotional, tear-inducing excess. The Academy loves to honor World War Two tales, but this one might find itself on the outside looking in.
By David Morris