“Here is one small fact. You are going to die.” With this doleful, disembodied declaration, Death (Roger Allam) makes his presence known. As the camera glides through billowy clouds and into swirling snow mixed with train engine steam viewed from above, he goes on: “Despite every effort, nobody lives forever.” Because he’s Death, even if unnamed and unseen, such banalities pass for profundities in The Book Thief.
Death’s voiceover doesn’t so much shape the film as direct your reading of it, which is to say, it describes what you see in frame and suggests what you might think about it. The long movement from the clouds through the snow and steam leads you inside the train, chugging along in Germany, February 1938 (a subtitle notes), where he identifies a little girl who interests him, one Liesel (Sophie Nélisse). She’s riding with her mother (Heike Makatsch) and little brother (Julian Lehman), and she spots the moment when Death takes the latter, indicated by a close-up or her face and then her brother’s, nose bleeding oh so delicately but also significantly. “She caught me,” says Death, and for this reason, apparently, he follows her life going forward.
This life is tragic and harrowing and also uplifting, shaped by a sentimental soundtrack and swooping camerawork, set in the fictional town of Molching, near Munich, during World War II. Liesel is the titular thief, whom Death catches stealing a book that falls from a tall, dark-suited man’s pocket at her brother’s burial. Because she cannot read, Liesel doesn’t know this is a gravediggers’ manual—charming, you might suppose, to Death—though she discovers this at the home where her mother deposits her, with a couple in need of the state funds that come with foster children. No one tries very hard to hide this impetus: on Liesel’s arrival, Rosa (Emily Watson) complains at the missing brother, while Hans (Geoffrey Rush) does his best to soothe the frightened girl, easing her out of the dark car interior by deeming her “your highness.”
And so it goes: the harsh, fretful foster mother and the kindly, imaginative foster father do their best to feed themselves and Liesel (he’s a sign painter and she takes in laundry), while also remaining “good Germans” as the Nazis become more visible, burning books, raiding homes, breaking storefront windows. The film—with Death’s persistently overstated help—lays out the ways that a child might wear swastikas on their uniforms and sing Nazi hymns and absorb fascist ideology, except when she doesn’t. Her best friend is the tow-headed neighbor boy, Rudy (Nico Liersch), whose father (Oliver Stokowski) not-so-voluntarily joins the military in order to save his family (lots of tears and worry over this decision) and who spends most of his screen time running through cobbly streets with Liesel, his cherubic face beaming as he dotes on her.
Rudy’s doting parallels Death’s, who repeatedly narrates what Rudy can’t know, including that Hans and Rosa take in Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of Hans’ Jewish military buddy, and hide him in their basement, fluttery and fragile, for a couple of years. As he lies feverish for months on end, Liesel, taught to read by Hans, reads to him the books she steals from the local burgermeister’s (Rainer Bock) extensive library—this in part because she’s invited to sit and read there by his wife Ilsa (Barbara Auer), who is so delicately grieving for her son, killed in the war and enshrined in a prominently displayed, properly ornate picture frame.
All of this is to say, rather obviously, that Liesel’s life—the one in which Death expresses such interest—is also framed, by Death and the threat of death, by air raids and soldiers and military vehicles and weapons, even as it is also structured by hope and love and loyalty, modeled by Hans most plainly but soon enough revealed in Rosa’s devotion to her husband (even as she grumbles about him) and the daughter and their unwelcome, anxious-making visitor.
Rosa’s transformation is at once the film’s most vibrant and least irritating, even if it is as predictable as those of the people around her. This effectiveness has to do with Watson’s lovely performance, but also with the particular difficulties Rosa faces. Surrounded by readers, dreamers, and wanna-or-gonna-be-artists, she remains focused on a now, a horrific, multi-dimensional present that promises no future. And Rosa survives, until, like everyone else, she doesn’t.