Life Is Beautiful may or may not have set a benchmark for tackiness in Holocaust cinema, but The Book Thief offers a hypothetical way in which the former might have been worse: At least it wasn’t narrated by Death. Over footage of clouds, the opening voiceover of The Book Thief warns viewers of “one small fact: You are going to die.” Is this a remake of American Beauty? A ripoff of Brazil (at least visually)? No, it’s a drama set in late-’30s Germany, adapted from Markus Zusak’s bestselling 2005 novel. Surely, the conceit of telling the story from the Grim Reaper’s POV—his musings are delivered in a mellifluous, stuffy cadence by Roger Allam—is the kind of device that worked better on the page.
Fortunately, that noxious gambit, mostly abused in the movie’s bookends, is the worst part of the film, which is otherwise a smoothly directed story of a child trying to understand the unfathomable. Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is entrusted by her Communist-sympathizing mother to a pair of German foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), who soon take in another visitor: Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew whose father saved Hans’ life during World War I. Initially illiterate, Liesel enjoys hearing new words, and is confounded by the book burnings that take place in town. She’ll soon learn more complex lessons, as she starts to understand why her guardians are hiding Max in the basement, and why she can’t tell that secret to anyone—even her friend Rudy (Nico Liersch), who’s stoked the ire of local Nazi party members for idolizing Jesse Owens.
Directed by Brian Percival (whose best-known credits consist of several Downton Abbey episodes), The Book Thief falls into many of the traps that set off theorists’ alarm bells: sentimentalizing horror, focusing on survivors rather than victims, softening the trauma of the Holocaust by looking at it through the eyes of an innocent. But as melodrama, the movie is an absorbing portrait of a community’s indifference to its own. Certainly, there are less crude ways to convey the impact of Kristallnacht than to have Liesel ask Hans why he’s scraping a Jewish name off a sign the morning after. But the story, arguably aimed at younger viewers (along the lines of Lois Lowry’s Number The Stars), is essentially one of recognizing insensitivity: Liesel begins to comprehend adults’ failure to help their Jewish neighbors and to witness the way totalitarianism rules by paranoia, blind obedience, and fearful silence. In a script arbitrarily sprinkled with German words, the French-Canadian Nélisse holds her own amid a more seasoned cast; her scenes with the kindly Rush are particularly fine. The epilogue, again, seems a bizarre mismatch for everything that precedes it—though by standards of literary-themed Holocaust dramas, there’s nothing in The Book Thief as miscalculated as the entirety of The Reader.