“Words are life.”
That’s what Max, the young Jewish man the Hubermanns keep hidden in the basement, tells Liesel one day. And she believes him with all her heart. There’s something about books, with all their stories and lessons, that maintain and buoy Liesel’s spirit. They keep her going.
They kept Max going too. She would read to him every day as he struggled to stay alive and make it through his sickness in that damp basement.
When Liesel stops to think about it, it’s amazing how far she’s come with life and books in just the last few years. When she first showed up at Hans and Rosa Hubermann’s front doorstep, she was but an illiterate 11-year-old with little hope. Her younger brother had just died and her Communist mother was rumored to be running for her life.
The Nazis are in power in Germany. And little girls who like to read books aren’t faring very well.
The kind Hans did help Liesel feel welcome. He even struck a bargain with her: They would help each other learn to read. (Even though Liesel was pretty sure he knew more than he was saying.)
Since then she has learned so much. She made a good friend in Rudy, the boy next door. And she even gained access to a small library, a rather rare thing since book burnings are the order of the day. But the local bürgermeister’s wife, Frau Hermann, let Liesel secretly read the books in her late son’s personal library during weekly laundry deliveries.
Papa Hans then created a homemade dictionary―painted right on the walls of the basement―where Liesel could write down all the new words she encountered.
Of course, soon enough, the dank basement was needed for another purpose. Max’s father had once saved Hans’ life, and so Papa was honor-bound to help the young, sickly refugee when he showed up in the dead of night, never mind the danger. And as Liesel gets to know the Jewish man, she realizes that protecting him is really the only choice.
For there are some things you protect at any cost―life, friendship, love, honor and, yes, words.
This story of average German citizens suffering under the heel of a vicious Nazi boot produces many positives messages. And centrally, the film portends that even in the worst of times, there are good people who will give of themselves to help others. It maintains that such simple actions change everything.
Hans is such a man. Even though he and his wife initially take in Liesel for a government allowance, he quickly sees that she is heartbroken (over the loss of her family) and does everything he can to make her feel loved and welcome. Hans becomes a fond, caring father to the girl―helping her to read and teaching her of honor and love―and she easily takes to calling him Papa. Even his storm cloud of a thundering wife, Rosa, eventually shows that there’s a hidden tenderness beneath her gruff exterior.
Later, when Max stumbles to the door, Hans readily takes in the persecuted Jew, protecting and hiding him in spite of the Nazi threats. Hans impresses upon his “daughter,” “a person is only as good as their word.”
Liesel attaches herself to Max, reading him book after book to try to keep him alive. In return, Max encourages Liesel’s love of words―creating a book in which she can use her wealth of new words to express her feelings and perceptions.
Hans and Liesel also use their gifts―he with an accordion, she with stories―to comfort frightened townsfolk in an air raid shelter.
[Spoiler Warning] When Max chooses to leave his hiding place in order to spare Liesel and her new family from harm, Hans wonders aloud how much their months of struggle actually meant. Liesel replies. “Maybe we were just being people. That’s what people do.” Later we find out that he needn’t have worried; that their efforts on Max’s behalf were the very thing that saved his life.
The narrator is Death. He never makes reference to his spiritual nature except to say that he stands apart from flesh and blood humans and fulfills his job of collecting their souls when their time comes. He sometimes marvels over the goodness or the character of the people he collects, and he reports a few of their final thoughts. In one instance, he talks of a man looking up into the night sky and “thanking God for the stars that blessed his eyes.”
In times of great stress, Hans cries out, “God in heaven!” and, “Christ on a cross, what have I done?”
We see several wartime bombings and their aftermath. A truck full of soldiers is hit and flipped onto its roof. Bodies are strewn in the rubble of a demolished village street. (They all look as if they fell asleep after getting very dirty.) The Nazis smash shop windows and drag people into the streets where they kick and punch them. When the Nazis drag one man away, Hans openly challenges them, asking for a reason—and an officer pushes him to the ground, slamming his head against the paving stones.
When Liesel’s young brother dies, she spots a small trickle of blood coming from his nose. Schoolmate Franz bullies Rudy and Liesel on several occasions, usually through pushing and shoving meanness. Liesel gets into a full-fledged fight with him, driving him to the ground and pummeling him repeatedly. She also falls and rips the skin from her shin. An angry neighbor drags Liesel’s friend Rudy to his front door by the ear.
One “h‑‑‑” and three or four careless interjections of “oh my god.”
Rosa initially appears to be a rather foul individual, calling Liesel “stupid and dirty.” Many of the local kids support that idea, calling the young girl names such as “dummkopf” when they learn she can’t read or spell. Not that the Nazi leadership would care. They’d rather destroy books than read them, and they hold regular book-burning ceremonies they say will free the populace from “intellectual dirt.” (Liesel snatches The Invisible Man back from the flames.)
Liesel sneaks into a house to steal/borrow several books.
“I make it a policy to avoid the living,” Death tells us as he makes his way through the movie’s opening narration. “I don’t know what it was about Liesel, but she caught me … and I cared.” And with that, Death points us to a young, emotionally wounded girl we can’t help but also care for.
Based on a best-selling novel penned by Australian author Markus Zusak and now translated into 30 different languages, The Book Thief isn’t a bombastic slaughter-of-war pic as much as it’s a movie about the intimate agonies of life on the outside edges of war―the pains, hungers and worries of children and families and loved ones. Director Brian Percival (best known for his work on the Downton Abbey television series) gives the film a steady, deliberately slow pace, which makes the generally quiet, dramatic scenes of loss or small victory take on an even stronger sense of force and importance.
This isn’t an easy film to live with. Death tells us that he was very productive at his job during the story’s years of 1938 to 1945. And even though we don’t witness the true gruesomeness of it all, the weight and misery of war and Jewish persecution is a heavy cinematic burden to bear.
But what this film and its young protagonist do best in the midst of that wretchedness is to help us see just how logical and possible it would have been for mostly good people to be horribly changed, in small incremental ways, by the Nazi agenda that surrounded them. A book-burning rally could seem normal and cheer-worthy with the right speech or setting. And it’s only certain individuals―such as our young Liesel who surreptitiously grabs a smoldering book from the pile, or a father wondering aloud why a “good neighbor” is being taken away―who give us an anchor. They remind us of how misguided and malevolent State group-think can corrupt and steal away what’s most precious to us. Our freedom. Our morality. Our compassion.
And they remind us that we don’t have to succumb. That we mustn’t.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.