The Book Thief
Opens Fri., Nov. 22 at Lincoln Square and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 125 minutes.
It’s the Holocaust, so it must be Christmastime again. I had never heard of Australian writer Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel The Book Thief, nor was I aware—per the movie’s press kit—that it’s since been translated into 30 languages and sold eight million copies. That’s because I don’t have kids.
This film is also meant for children, and parents can safely drop them off for a matinee, candy money in hand, since there are no gas chambers or mass graves to give them nightmares. And though The Book Thief is a laughably trite historical exercise by adult standards, kids have to start learning about the Holocaust at some point, right? Our orphaned German heroine is Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), aged 11 when sent to live with a childless couple—kindly Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and sour Rosa (Emily Watson). It’s 1938, and you know what follows: the Nuremberg Rally, Jesse Owens at the Olympics, Kristallnacht, the roundup of the Jews, the Anschluss, and the Allied bombing raids that kill German civilians and combatants alike.
Liesel understands little of this at first because she’s illiterate, which has something to do with her dead Communist parents, which is never explained. (I thought the Reds loved books.) But Hans helps teach her to read, as does a handsome Jewish lad hiding in their basement (Ben Schnetzer), and there’s even a cute boy next door (Nico Liersch) with a crush on Liesel. Her adventures are tame; the entire movie is so tame, in fact, that I’d strip the 13 off the PG above. In one writerly flourish, the movie is given posh narration by Death himself. Not only is he British, but Death apparently went to Oxford. Don’t believe me? Steal the book.