The Book Thief
Directed by Brian Percival
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
Rated PG-13 for some
violence and intense depiction of thematic material
2 hrs.,7 min.

On the surface, The Book Thief previews like one more dramatic Nazi movie in the vein of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It’s not, however. Though the Nazis are certainly prominent, what’s really crucial in this film is the importance of the written word.

When the film opens, it’s 1938 in Nazi Germany. The country is on the verge of war and the Nazi pogroms against the Jews are becoming more rampant. Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and her younger brother are being transported by her mother to a foster home in a small German village. Tragically, after her brother dies on the train, Liesel arrives alone to meet foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson).

Liesel must learn to get along with her new parents as well as the children at her school who label her dummkopf after they discover that she cannot read. When Hans learns that she’s illiterate, they read together from a gravedigger’s manual that Liesel stole during her brother’s funeral. Hans also paints the entire alphabet on the cellar wall and encourages her to write out vocabulary words.

As war breaks out, Jewish refugee Max (Ben Schnetzer) shows up at their home. Hans feels obligated to shelter him in memoriam to his dead WWI friend. With anti-Jewish laws in full force, the family takes great risks to keep him safe. But even as the war worsens, they all come to love Max as a son and brother, especially Liesel, who learns to share his passion for art and books.

There’s an awkward slant to The Book Thief because it’s a German story with dialogue in accented English. It’s a bit disconcerting when you realize that Germans in the 1930s and 1940s would not normally be reading books in English or spelling out English vocabulary. But setting that aside, the performances by Nélisse, Rush and Watson, along with that of Max and Liesel’s young friend Rudy (Nico Liersch), allow some leeway to be given.

Director Brian Percival, screenwriters Markus Zusak (the original novelist) and Michael Petroni, and composer John Williams beautifully showcase the wide-eyed and wondering viewpoint of Liesel to great effect, often zooming the lens in front of her face and making her appear intensely interested in what is on the other side of the camera.

Moreover, they capture the essence of life in a small village as it struggles with Nazism — wide-angle shots of the surrounding forest and river,  snowy shots of rooftop, long shots of empty streets in the dark.

It’s all in contrast to a small group of townspeople, susceptible to prejudice and political rhetoric, who, even in wartime, live fairly normal lives. With bombs pounding at their doorstep, adults go to work, children go to school, laundry gets delivered, kids play soccer in the street.

And in the midst of it all, Liesel discovers the power of reading:  first in the gravedigger’s manual, then through a series of borrowed books, and finally, by outright theft from the bürgermeister’s library.

This is a quiet film, interrupted periodically by the violence of war, but its focus seems to be on how the written word can grow like a seed and become something beautiful, even in the worst circumstances. It’s a child’s curiosity — that young passion for reading, understanding and questioning — that allows The Book Thief to poetically delve into the emotional and spiritual beauty of the imaginative word.

Which leads to the important question raised by The Book Thief: Why do we still need books? In an age of high technology and dwindling print access, that is the idea that makes this film so thought provoking. Whether in the 1930s or 2013, it may be that, as with Liesel and her adopted family, it’s a question that challenges our very survival as humans.