The Book Thief: The Girl Who Fought the Nazis With Words

An honorable adaptation of the Markus Zuzak best-seller proves that passion is what's lost in translation

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Jules Heath / Twentieth Century Fox

This month’s flood of books, TV shows and DVD reissues about the assassination of John F. Kennedy underlines a recurring tendency in popular culture: the way it exploits — sorry, commemorates — the anniversaries of tragic events. This weekend provides one of the strangest and saddest. The premiere of The Book Thief, the film of Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel about a girl growing up in Nazi Germany, coincides with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, Hitler’s paramilitary Brownshirts smashed the windows of Jewish homes and businesses. Perhaps a hundred Jews died in the attacks; some 30,000 were carted off to concentration camps, in one of the first overt steps toward the horrifying Final Solution. The movie sees the Kristallnacht outrage through the eyes of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a nine-year-old orphan taken in by Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson). And Liesel is watched, with a sympathetic curiosity, by Death (the caressing, honeyed voice of Roger Allam), who drily acknowledges that, over the next few years, “No one was serving the Fuhrer as loyally as me.”

(READ: Frank Rich’s 1978 essay on Television and the Holocaust by subscribing to TIME)

Gracing the New York Times Children’s Books best-seller list for more than four years, and translated into at least 30 languages, the novel described an illiterate girl’s love affair with the literature she learns to read, and taught the saving subversion of books in a nation that burned them. Cannily merging form and content, Zuzak knew that, when children picked up The Book Thief, they were engaging in an act of solidarity with little lost Liesel. To read the book was to defy the Nazis.

Reading is an active enterprise; it demands an effort to translate the words on the page into images, ideas, emotions, people. Watching a movie is passive; one need only stay awake to have consumed it. So a film of The Book Thief has an uphill climb to stir the same intensity as the novel did. The movie, directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and scripted by Michael Petroni, is a sort of illuminated manuscript — a picture book of the book. Proceeding at a stately pace to a subtly melodic John Williams score, this honorable adaptation telescopes a 552-page story into a series of anecdotes covering Liesel’s five years on Himmelstrasse (Heaven Street) with the Hubermanns.

(READ: Lev Grossman’s review of Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief)

Rosa, who does washing for the city’s burghers, is a stern woman reluctant to display her generous spirit. Hans, a house painter who is mostly unemployed because of his refusal to join the Nazi party, stays at home, plays the accordion and pours his love into the child he calls “Your Majesty.” She has arrived on his doorstep clutching a copy of The Gravedigger’s Handbook, which she found at her mother’s burial site. He will teach her to read — to open herself to the world of books; to be fully human.

In the midst of the maelstrom, Liesel pursues the life of a girl in any ordinary country. She deftly deflects the persistent ardor of her school chum Rudy (Nico Liersch), endures the bullying of older kids and finds a cache of books in the home of the Mayor — a private library to filch from. Liesel’s most intense relationship is with Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the son of a Jew who saved Hans’ life in the Great War. When the Hubermanns secretly shelter Max in their basement, like an Anne Frank under the noses of the Nazis, he becomes another inspiration for the girl’s benign logophilia.

(READ: TIME’s 1955 review of the Broadway play The Diary of Anne Frank)

What can films do that books can’t? Provide faces for the characters. Rush and Watson, who played husband and wife in the TV film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, lend warmth and weight, respectively, to Hans and Rosa. (Watson’s Rosa might be the sour sister to her role as the protective mother of another questing child scarred by war in Steven Spielberg’s film of War Horse.) But it’s Nélisse, previously impressive in the French-Canadian Oscar-winner Monsieur Lazhar, who holds the picture together. Suggesting the lovely gravity of the young Elizabeth Taylor in her National Velvet years, and the budding willfulness of Kiernan Shipka’s Sally Draper in Mad Men, Nélisse must age from nine to fourteen, and does so plausibly. She is a compulsively watchable actress.

A few fine moments: Hans comes to the public aid of a Jewish man and is racked with despair at the harm his rash act of bravery may bring to his family. … The Mayor’s wife Ilsa (beautiful Barbara Auer), still mourning the son she lost in the war two decades earlier, encourages Liesel to indulge her passion for books by letting her steal into the library. … During an air raid, Liesel calms the fears of her neighbors by telling a story between the thunderclaps of the Allies’ bombs. The scene recalls the sublime moment in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea when strangers crouched in the Aldwych underground station during an air raid become a community by singing “Molly Malone.”

(READ: Corliss’s review of Terrence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea)  

Perhaps The Book Thief needed an artist like Davies to turn it from prose on the page to poetry on the screen. The Perceval-Petroni version is judicious and well acted, with some fine details of human strength and frailty. But its ultimate asset may be to lead young audiences back to the book, for the real experience — the true connection of a child’s imagination and the fulfilling life of the word.