The Book Thief (2013), set in Nazi Germany, tells the story of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse), who lives with her foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Not having read Markus Zusak’s 2006 novel, I know nothing about adaptation changes.
In the opening scene, Liesel, her little brother, and her mother are on a train headed for Molching. The mother is sending her children to a foster family so they and their new parents will have more food, a common practice for people starving because of severe rationing in Hitler’s Germany. Liesel’s brother dies suddenly and must be buried near the railroad tracks. After leaving the hasty funeral with her mother, Liesel steals a book from the gravedigger.
After arriving on Heaven Street in Molching, Liesel finds a father with an accordion heart and a mother cloaked in thunder. She also finds a friend in Rudy Steiner. Hans teaches Liesel to read the gravedigger’s book after she is taunted for illiteracy. Together they learn new words, which Liesel puts on a chalkboard dictionary Hans created in the basement.
Soon a Jewish refugee named Max Vandenburg comes to live with the family. He is the son of a man who died saving Hans in World War I. After being sworn to secrecy, Liesel learns to love Max. She also learns to hate Hitler, even though she is a member of his Youth Movement. Hitler’s black, communist, and Jew-hating servants will not let boys like Rudy pretend to be Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Munich and considered “the fastest man alive.” They also love to burn books. Franz forces Liesel and Rudy to burn a book on the night of Hitler’s birthday. She later steals one from the bonfire, seen only by the burgermeister’s wife. It is The Invisible Man (1897) by H. G. Wells and Liesel reads it to Max. Meanwhile, he teaches her to describe the world outside, the pale day and silver-oyster sun. Max also tells Liesel that everything with life – animals, plants, and people – contains the secret word for life. Therefore, all that separates people from a lump of clay and keeps them alive is a word.
Liesel eventually befriends Ilsa Hermann, whose husband the burgermeister has employed Rosa as a laundress. The bereaved woman lets Liesel read books from her dead son’s library. After Mr. Hermann discovers Liesel reading, he fires her mother. It is a loss of revenue for the family, and of books for Liesel. Now she must find another way to read.
After the family celebrates Christmas in the basement, Max’s new secret home, the young man is soaked in melted snow and becomes sick. So Liesel borrows books from Mrs. Hermann’s library and reads them to Max, believing words will keep him alive. On one of these trips, she tells Rudy about Max. Overheard by the school bully, Rudy throws Liesel’s book in the river to keep the other boy from getting it and then recovers her book. It is Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf (1925), which Max had transformed into a diary as a Christmas present for Liesel.
After Max recovers from his illness, Hans puts the family in danger by standing up for a Jewish neighbor and then giving his name to the Gestapo. Knowing his presence will force everyone in the family to be deported, Max leaves. Hans is then conscripted into Hitler’s army; he returns a few months later after an injury. Meanwhile, Liesel continues to borrow and read books. She also tells stories to her family and neighbors in the shelter during all-night air raids.
One night, without warning, the Allies bomb Heaven Street. Hans and Rosa die. So do Rudy’s family and the school bully. After Rudy himself dies in Liesel’s arms, she kisses him. Now alone, Liesel embraces Mrs. Hermann. The Allies arrive two years later. Liesel is working in the shop of Rudy’s father, where she reunites with Max. They eventually marry. The epilogue depicts Liesel’s family and successful writing career.
I once thought some critics were wrong about this film’s portrayal of Nazi Germany, as if they expected an adult viewpoint in a children’s film adapted from a children’s novel. The Book Thief is like Jakob the Liar (1999) and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), not Schindler’s List (1993) and The Pianist (2002). Still, these critics were partly right. Whether or not they believed Hitler’s Nazi propaganda, most Germans lived in fear of being reported to secret police and then conscripted or deported. They were patriotic in public, but their private views were different. Fear produced cowardice and a blind eye to murder, but many people saw it as the only way to survive. They considered public heroism stupid. Only once does the real terror of living in Hitler’s Germany surface. After Hans speaks up for a neighbor, arrested because he is Jewish, the Gestapo takes his name. At home, Hans weeps because he fears that he has put his family in danger of deportation. He later learns that he has been conscripted into Hitler’s army. After Hans leaves, Rosa falls asleep weeping.
Hans’ refusal to stand by and do nothing for his Jewish neighbor was heroic and real. Liesel’s frantic cry of “Max!” on a street crowded with Jews and the Gestapo, however, was dumb and unrealistic. Revealing her secret to Rudy was also unwise. She could have told him Max was a distant relative or someone from her past. I thought children in Nazi Germany were better liars. Finally, the family’s moving Max from a warm bedroom to a cold basement was just cruel.
Richard Roeper is right. The Book Thief is about ” the triumph of the human spirit … what it is to love and be loved” (Chicago Sun Times). But that rich meaning is overshadowed by the film’s atheism. It colors Max and Liesel’s views of life and the value they place on words. The real “book thief” is not Liesel but the narrator Death, a modern Grim Reaper. He steals the partially written books of people’s lives, the words they never write or speak and the deeds they never perform. Death also brags about serving both good and evil men, men like Hitler, and about never meeting anyone before his or her time. He knows nothing about humanity and does not want to know, except for Liesel. Death does not reign over heaven or hell either. Liesel’s family and friends enjoy no afterlife.
Yet death is a thing, not a person. And life is a person, Jesus Christ. Max is right. What separates us from clay and keeps us alive is a Word, Jesus (John 1:1, 14). He is the author of life and death (14:6), judge of the living and the dead (2 Timothy 4:1). Unlike the impersonal narrator Death, Jesus is omniscient. He knows everything about everyone at all times – desires, thoughts, words, and deeds (John 2:24-25). Jesus does not serve evil men either. He is fully God and fully man (1:14). So Jesus knows all about humanity – our heroism and cowardice, our frailty and sin (Hebrews 4:15). The miracle is that he wants to know us.
Contrary to The Book Thief, heaven and hell are real. Jesus Christ is the God of the living, not the dead (Matthew 22:32). He is not a book thief either but a book keeper. Jesus’ books will be opened one day, books of life and death (Revelation 20:12). Those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s “Book of Life” will be thrown in a lake of fire (20:15). Resurrection is coming.