A train carries 12 year old Liesel Meminger to a snow-laden town in Germany, just before the Second World War. Her biological mother is a communist, and she puts Liesel up for adoption to save her from Nazi persecution. Liesel’s adoptive parents, Hans the “lazy pig” and his wife, “the witch” Rosa, need a stipend to support themselves. Thus, the arrangement that upends Liesel’s world is made.
Death himself is the narrator who breaks precedent when he finds Liesel on the train and takes a personal interest in her. It’s not often Death finds a life story worth sharing, he doesn’t see many souls worth remembering. Death’s musings on life, humans, and the conditions under which he meets with them are clinical, cold, and of course, spoken in the Queen’s English. More importantly, Death’s musings are a portrait of what we leave in our wake and how well we have spent our time.
Liesel’s new parents, Hans and Rosa keep their political and moral opinions veiled from the Nazi regime, and their hidden Jewish companion, Max is an even more closely guarded secret. Max and Liesel have much in common, both children of widows, who keep their identity a secret as a matter of survival, and both have stolen books.
Liesel is too young to understand why the world is so cruel, but she has a way with words, and as she learns from Max, words are life. With Hans teaching Liesel to read and, Max to encourage her writing, Liesel has an escape from the propaganda machine.
This is a very simple, but also wandering story. After the circumstances of Liesel’s new life are set, the movie sort of meanders through its scenes, without much in the way of a traditional narrative. This is why many critics gave the movie a low rating, but for audiences, the uneven pace may reflect the ebb and flow of life. The pace is also easy to accept, due to the richness of the characters.
Precious few movies have the courage to place so much of the weight on the characters, especially when the cast is virtually absent of “A-listers”. Hans was brilliantly and effortlessly played by Geoffrey Rush, who is known to most movie-goers as Captain Barbosa of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Rosa is played equally well by Emily Watson, a recognizable name, but neither of these names are enough on their own to sell a movie ticket. This is refreshing because Rush and Watson are not just character actors, they have range, and the success of their roles relies not just on stereotype, but on the writing, directing and performances, which are all done exceptionally well.
It’s also refreshing to watch a movie that invites you to step inside the story. Rush and Watson have great chemistry. But it’s the chemistry between Rush and newcomer Sophie Nélisse that really drives the movie. It is because they bring such profound joy to the comic relief and such weight to the drama that most audiences won’t mind the uneven flow of the movie’s pace.
Most of all, I loved this movie because it reminds us that death, in many ways, can be beaten – only when we have the courage to risk death to live a full life.