The film The Book Thief is based on a 2005 young adult novel of the same name by Australian writer Markus Zuzak. The story was adapted for film by Michael Petroni and was directed by Brian Percival. Music for this film was by John Williams.
The story is narrated by Death (with the voice of Roger Allam) and starts in a train, in the late 1930s in a politically unstable Europe. Liesel (played by Sophie Nélisse) and her mother and brother are travelling to meet the people who have arranged a foster family for Liesel and her brother. Liesel’s brother Werner is about 3 years old and is sitting on her mother’s lap while their mother sings him a lullaby, and Liesel suddenly calls out in horror – the little boy has died in his mother’s arms. He is buried beside the train tracks, and when the funeral is finished, the gravedigger turns away and drops a book. Liesel picks up the book, slips it under her coat and thus becomes the book thief of the title.
She arrives at her foster parents’ home in a rather forbidding-looking town, where her foster mother Rosa (played the excellent Emily Watson) seems harsh but is later revealed to have a heart of gold, but her foster father Hans (played by the brilliant Geoffrey Rush) is kind from the start. The next morning, the boy Rudy (played by young German actor Nico Liersch) who lives next door, calls for Liesel to bring her to school, where we discover that Liesel cannot read. We also meet the local bully Franz Deutscher who goads Liesel into a fight – and is very surprised when Liesel does not back down and lands a few good punches. Later that evening, Liesel’s foster father Hans comes to talk to her, and sees her holding the book she stole from her brother’s grave, asks to see it, and tells her it’s a gravedigger’s manual. Hans starts teaching Liesel to read with this book, and later he starts using the walls of his cellar for her to write up the new words she learns.
As her foster parents are very poor and Hans’ work is sporadic at best – he is a sign-writer and housepainter – Rosa takes in washing for richer people, including the town Mayor, in German the Bürgermeister. Liesel is tasked with returning clean laundry to the Mayor’s house, and she meets the Mayor’s wife, who brings her to the house library, which is enormous and full of books, all the way up to the ceiling, and invites her to read there whenever she likes. Eventually the Mayor himself realises what is going on and forbids Liesel from reading in his house, so Liesel decides to break into the house by climbing through the library window (presumably left open by the Mayor’s wife) and borrowing books to read.
In the meantime, a young Jewish man comes to their house for shelter. At the time, it was highly illegal to shelter or indeed provide any form of help to Jews in World War II Germany, so the fugitive, whose name is Max, lives in hiding in their cellar, where Liesel reads to him from the books she has ‘borrowed’ from the Mayor’s library. As it is very cold in the cellar Max becomes seriously ill, and there is a nail-biting moment when a local member of the SS comes to the door to see the cellar, and there is a very real risk of Max being discovered and Liesel and her parents getting into serious trouble, but through Hans’ quick thinking Max remains safe. It turns out that the SS are checking cellars to see if they can be used as air-raid shelters.
Hans would distract the other people in the shelter by playing music on his accordion. Rudy’s father is conscripted, and later Hans is also called up, and during the next air-raid Liesel realises just how important his music was to the people sheltering there, so she starts to tell fantastic stories to try and distract them from their fear of the bombs pounding their town. Hans but does not stay away for very long, as he is injured and no longer fit for service, so returns home. Max the fugitive has left, and during a march of Nazi prisoners through the town Liesel thinks she sees him and puts herself and her family in grave danger by calling out to him and running among the prisoners to try to find him. Liesel still reads in the cellar, but with no Max to talk to, tends to fall asleep there, and so is sleeping in the cellar when an air-raid hits the town without any warning, causing many people to die, including her foster parents Hans and Rosa, as well as Rudy’s family next door. Rudy himself is rescued from the rubble but dies shortly after. The Mayor and his wife drive to the street, and Liesel runs to the Mayor’s wife, as she is the only person still living who Liesel knows, her own mother is far away and has not been in contact, and her foster parents and neighbours are dead.
The film skips over the next two years, to after the war, and Rudy’s father has returned and has resumed his tailoring business, and Liesel works there. The door opens and a young man enters, it is Max, who Liesel’s foster parents hid in their cellar at great risk. Liesel is very happy to see him.
The final scene is in an apartment high over the city of New York, with lots of photographs and a lovely display case housing Hans’ accordion, during which Death tells us that Liesel lived to be 90 years old and was a successful writer, and became a mother and grandmother.