Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) arrives in Germany at the age of 9. Her mother has given her up for adoption, saving her from the Nazis, but her brother—also selected by her adoptive parents to have a boy around the house to share the workload—died en route to his new home.
Her foster mother, Rosa (Emily Watson), does not take to the girl early on. She is rigid and uncaring. Hans (Geoffrey Rush), whom she endearingly calls Papa, dotes on Liesel, teaching her to read the funeral director's handbook she found at her brother's burial. It's the first of many books they'll read together.
The Book Thief is based on the novel by Markus Zusak, which spent more than half a decade on the New York Times best-seller list and seems as good a place as any to softball the horrors of the Holocaust to a younger audience. Whether intentional or not, the film almost seems broken into chapters delineated by book thefts. Liesel picks up the funeral director's handbook to begin down one path in her life, takes a small left turn by grabbing a verboten book off the smoldering pile at a Nazi book-burning, and begins another new journey breaking into the home of a Nazi officer to "borrow" some of his classics. Each time, Liesel learns more about worlds that are not her own and finds new ways to grow.
Holocaust movies need to tread lightly, though. There may actually be more bad examples than good ones, and the films can be overly maudlin, hoping the weight of the circumstances alone will make people think the movie is better than it actually is. Worse, some can even trivialize the Holocaust with their triteness, which does nobody any favors. See Jacob the Liar, for instance, or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
And while The Book Thief is a moving story overall, it suffers from minor maladies here and there. When Hans and Rosa come to the rescue of their old friend Max and hide the ailing Jew in their basement, it's a rather clumsy subplot in the film. It's not necessarily central to the story of Liesel and Hans, and while there are countless examples of such magnanimity in Europe during the war, here it seems like shorthand for the Anne Frank experience, borrowing what we know and feel about that story and extrapolating it onto this one. Of course, that's largely the novelist's problem and it would be difficult for director Brian Percival to excise that chunk of the book completely.
On the other hand, there's also a wildly inappropriate narration that Percival or the studio should have dropped as soon as they got the script. The book is narrated by Death, who took a special interest in Liesel when he visited her younger brother at the beginning of the story. And then, about every 35 minutes of screen time, Death shows up again. It does not translate well to film at all.
As for that central story of Liesel and Hans, it is gratifyingly the heart and soul of the picture. Nélisse demonstrates a kind of emotional intelligence you rarely find in child actors, certainly ones who can't truly conceptualize the trauma their character is living through. And then there's Geoffrey Rush. He's one of those rare performers who gives you exactly what you expect nearly every time and still finds ways to showcase a healthy dose of what you don't expect, because that's what will make it memorable. Very few actors of any generation make it look this easy.
The Book Thief would be a difficult slog without him. Perhaps it is fine for the young adult audience, which needs to approach the historical necessity of the Holocaust on its own more palatable terms. But Geoffrey Rush makes the mechanical musts of this story run their best. He's empathetic, he guides his young co-star through a parade of difficult scenes, and he gives the film a humanity it otherwise wouldn't have.