“The Book Thief,” the training wheels of Holocaust movies, is as pleasant an indictment of Nazi Germany as you are likely to find in cinemas this holiday season. It does many of the things that bad movies do — such as implausibly letting a little boy cheerfully swim to the bottom of a freezing-cold river and back, and enlisting a pleasant-sounding Death to narrate the story.
You can’t blame it for the latter, as author Marcus Zusak chooses that kid-friendly contrivance for his runaway bestselling novel of the same title, but that won’t stop your eyes from rolling.
You have to cut it some slack, though, because this is solidly a young adult venture. That’s not necessarily a knock on it; Anne Frank’s diary, the most enduring World War II story told, was authored by a girl scarcely older than the protagonist of “The Book Thief,” Liesel (a precocious and vulnerable Sophie Nélisse). Young audiences don’t need to try and grasp some of the most heinous moments in living history by diving straight into “The Pianist” or “Schindler’s List.” Still, if you’re a grown-up, “The Book Thief” may come across as a too-pat tour of life for non-Nazis in Germany during the second World War.
The story as far as it goes isn’t a bad one. Liesel is a young girl whose just been deposited with foster parents, having watched her kid brother die on the journey to meet them. Hans (Geoffrey Rush, at his most kindly) is the patient, accordion-playing underemployed sign painter; Rosa (Emily Watson, affectingly) is a brusque, emotionally constipated washerwoman.
Upon Liesel’s arrival, Hans helps her learn to read, and Rosa enlists her to deliver clothes. They go from merely irritated by the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party to de facto outlaws when a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), arrives one night needing refuge. Liesel has a next-door best friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch) who nurses a persistent, unrequited crush on her.
Liesel, a suitably love-crossed heroine for scholastic youngsters, earns her titular nickname by nicking books. The first is at her brother’s graveside, when she stows a book (“The Gravedigger’s Handbook”) that falls out of a coat pocket. Later, at a book bonfire thrown by Nazi partiers looking to purify their warped intellects, she doubles back and scoops up a still-smoldering copy of “The Invisible Man.”
This catches the notice of a party official’s wife, who invites Liesel into her library during laundry visits; later denied entry, Liesel breaks in to “borrow” books. Words and literacy here are a shorthand for virtue, and you can essentially chart villainy here in whether a character stymies reading.
Even this oversimplified approach to the world contains satisfying and practical lessons for children. As the Greatest Generation continues to shuffle off this mortal coil, the crimes of the Third Reich recede into the same inchoate blob of bygone atrocity that swallows so many centuries. Invoking Hitler has become such a hallmark of hyperbole that it’s stupidly comical now almost 70 years after his death.
How to explain to kids the reality? Start with the shorthand that Nazis were people who regarded books as a menace — saw broad knowledge and learning as threats to their world order. These were real people who snuffed out light and found cover in the darkness to kill millions of people.
Perhaps this is how to encourage the next generation of subversive, dedicated readers: Don’t burn books — steal ’em.