The Holocaust has never looked so beautiful.
In The Book Thief — a World War II melodrama about a German girl who learns to treasure words through her friendship with a young Jewish man hiding in her family’s basement — the clothes are neat and new, the streets gleam, red banners with their black swastikas flap crisply in the breeze, everywhere.
Even when storefront windows are shattered and shop owners beaten during the Kristallnacht of 1938, or grim years later, when Allied bombs come pouring down on Germany, laying low whole blocks, the dust and rubble have a meticulous, art-directed sheen.
The film, adapted from Markus Zusak’s 2005 young-adult bestseller, faithfully maintains the book’s narrative device, deploying an omniscient voice-over — the voice belonging to none other than Death. This chap sounds very British (he is: the busy character actor Roger Allam) and very cool, beginning things by declaring “one small fact — you are going to die.” There is a note of pride in this assertion, but also one of weariness. He rarely gets caught up in the personal struggles of his charges; there are too many of them, too mundane. But little Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is something else, something special. Death takes an interest.
Liesel has been sent to live with foster parents. She was part of a package deal, but her brother died en route. Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson) is not pleased; she is strict and stern and scowling. But Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush), a house painter by trade and a lovable, accordion-playing, gleam-in-his-eye jokester by instruction of the script, immediately takes to Liesel, and vice versa.
When he realizes Liesel cannot read, he begins to teach her, transforming the basement into a wall-to-wall celebration of language — the letters, the vocabulary, the perfect chalkboard fonts.
When the Hubermanns dare to take in a Jewish refugee named Max (Ben Schnetzer), he endures the endless days and nights of concealment by encouraging Liesel to describe to him the outside world — in vivid, literary detail. He is teaching her to become a storyteller, a writer. “Words are life,” he declares.
So Liesel becomes a voracious reader, getting her books anywhere she can, but mostly from the bountiful library of the town burgermeister. Although the bürgermeister’s wife (the Ingrid Bergman-esque Barbara Auer) befriends Liesel and lets her lounge around, poring through the classics, the foster girl returns in stealth, nicking a nice, leather-bound edition here and there.
The Book Thief has been studiously directed by Brian Percival, a Brit who works mostly in television (multiple episodes of Downton Abbey) and who luxuriates in backlot tidiness and backlit glows. He gets composer John Williams to deliver one of his trademark syrup-sloshed scores (the first time Williams has done a non-Steven Spielberg project since 2005).
Percival gets his leading lady, Nélisse (the grief-struck schoolgirl in the 2011 French Canadian gem, Monsieur Lazhar) to pop her blue eyes wide and run down the cobblestones with coltish charm, and he allows veteran thespians Rush and Watson to pile on the ham, as if they were making big, fat sandwiches at the local beer hall.
But there aren’t many big, fat sandwiches in the Hubermann household as the war drags on. Times are tough. Luckily, Liesel has Max in the basement, and her “Papa” upstairs, and a love-struck schoolmate, Rudy (Nico Liersch), to walk to school with.
Then Death feels the need to intrude again. And again.
If his accent wasn’t so charming, his voice so resonant, it would be depressing, all this meddling and mortality.
Cast: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer.
Director: Brian Percival.
Screenwriter: Michael Petroni. Based on the novel by Markus Zusak.
Producers: Ken Blancato, Karen Rosenfelt.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 122 minutes. Violence, adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 22 at area theaters.