The film opens with the voice of Death. His tone is amused, cynical, like the demons in an Andy Hamilton satire.
This sets the mood which contrasts with the harsh reality of Liesel’s story, diminishing its impact.
Unlike the majority of Holocaust-tinged tragedies it takes place in a small German town during WWII.
There are scenes of Jew baiting and ethnic cleansing on a limited scale. The people live with swastika banners in the streets and photographic portraits of the Fuhrer on the walls of the municipal buildings, but no feeling of affection for the soldiers at the front or the behavior of Nazi sympathisers at home.
Liesel is an orphan, or at least treated as one, and adopted by Rosa Hubermann (“My new mama is like a thunderstorm”) and her husband Hans, a hen-pecked casual labourer who enjoys nothing more than playing his squeeze box in the house, which, like so much else, aggravates his wife.
The film gives a good impression of what it must have been like for ordinary people out of the firing line during the Third Reich.
Liesel makes friends with Rudy (Nico Liersch), a blond boy of her age who runs fast and later is selected for a sports scholarship.
The family take in Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of Jewish friends, and hide him in the cellar. This is an act of untypical bravery which affects them all, especially Liesel.
Although The Book Thief suffers from Death’s flippant asides and feels oddly familiar, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, as Liesel’s adopted parents, appear to be acting in a different film, a better one.
As for 11-year-old Sophie Nelisse from Montreal criticism is crushed under an avalanche of praise. She is perfectly cast in the lead role.
In those years of trepidation, Liesel has the spirit of a survivor.
“Words are life,” she is told, as the Nazis burn books in the square.
And so she steals to read, to live, while night raiders from an incongruous enemy drone like bees in the black skies, ever closer.