In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve not read The Book Thief. Now usually the read/unread status of book only bears mentioning when I have read it and am insulating myself from either some comments on fanboy-dom or adding a grain of salt. Here I mention it because this seems as if it was a tricky adaptation to pull of. I say that because there are some rather literary traits to the story that are far easier to execute in prose than onscreen. However, the film while not avoiding missteps in the adaptation of said traits does put it forth immediately. While that same approach is part of what gets in the way of the final impact of the film there is much felt throughout that is worth noting, and, ultimately recommending.
First and most noteworthy in the story are the five principal figures. I used that diction specifically to discuss both character and performance. For the engaging part of The Book Thief is the humanity it finds and expresses in its characters. Its signature piece of dialogue alludes to to that underlying truth. The zeitgeist in World War II films is to explore the gray area. Not that this film is specifically gray, but it does go somewhere many films don’t which is to deal with Germans who didn’t quite follow the party line in a number of small and significant ways.
To bring those thoughts and emotions to life, and to show them truly (even to show them in a conflicted manner and still engender empathy) is the grand task of this fine cast. Perhaps it’s symbolically apropos that they each call a different nation home and portray German characters (US, Canada, Australia, England and Germany respectively). Taking that fact into consideration they also blend seamlessly well with one another and handle the anglicized German dialect they’re given superbly. Sophie Nélisse in my estimation had her breakout role with Monsieur Lazhar; here however her role is larger still, more dialogue-driven and in accented English such that her feat is perhaps even more impressive and she’s well on her way to becoming a household name. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson play two diametrically opposed types and parents, but the end result and the emotions the engender and exude in the end must be the same making their characters fairly ideal dramatic foils if those inhabiting the roles deliver, which they do. Ben Schnetzer as Max has the task of being sickly much of the time, believably and naturally poetic and philosophical in the face of, and in tandem with his emotions. His performance is such that his presence lingers even when his image does not grace the screen. Last but not least there’s Nico Liersch who stands out as the revelation of this film for his well-rounded and sensitive portrayal of Rudy a character who pines for Liesel from the moment he is introduced but never comes across as a doormat in that or any other situation, as characters with that affectation can at times.
The Book Thief does eventually come through with very moving moments, and while doing so in a very populist manner does cause people to think and reflect on the varied reactions and actions of people during that era in history.