“This is Heaven Street.”
The Book Thief (2013) is the story of Liesel Memminger (Sophie Nelisse), a young orphan on the brink of adolescence who is transported to a quaint German town amidst the boom of World War II when her Communist mother relinquishes her to the care of German foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson).
From the beginning of the film until the very end, we want to know everything there is to know about Leisel and her relationship with the shifting world around her. We first meet her as an introverted, emotionally wounded child who cannot read and now must learn to cope without her family in a strange new place. Yet, an intelligent girl with a resilient spirit hides behind her guarded front. Leisel’s subtle personality begins to emerge when she meets foster father Hans Hubermann whose playful charm offsets his wife’s iron fist. The relationship between Leisel and Hans blossoms into a special father-daughter bond when Hans teaches Liesel how to read at night in the basement of their tiny home and Liesel begins to develop an intense love for books.
The journey into the depths of Liesel’s sensitive soul continues throughout the film, but it isn’t until she meets Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the German Jew hiding in the Hubermanns’ basement, that Liesel discovers the power of words in addition to her love of books. The basement becomes a literary haven as Liesel transcribes a personal dictionary of her growing vocabulary right onto the cellar walls. When Max grows extremely ill from sleeping in the cold, damp cellar, Liesel resorts to “borrowing” books from the local Buergmeister’s magnificent library so that she can spend every waking moment reading to Max while he battles his deadly fever. Eventually, Max recovers from his illness and thanks Liesel for reading him back to life. Max presents Liesel with a blank journal, ironically constructed from a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and invites her to begin crafting her own words. “Words are life, Liesel.”
It’s a dark time and a perpetual stream of tragedy flows throughout the film, beginning with the personification of Death himself who narrates Liesel’s story in the opening and closing scenes. At the beginning of her journey, Leisel’s little brother becomes ill and dies on the train before they even reach the town, and the title of the first book that Liesel even learns how to read is The Grave Digger’s Handbook which fell out of the pocket of the man who buried her brother. At the end of the film, all of Liesel’s loved ones except for Liesel die in an accidental bombing due to a fighter pilot’s unfortunate misreading of the map. Additionally, the entire era is peppered with book burnings, Nazi reforms, and the deaths of Word War II soldiers and civilians.
Ultimately, The Book Thief is a story about ordinary people living in a simple, German town who are struggling to stay true to themselves as they experience the gradual deterioration of society. Despite the film’s heavy plot, there is always a lightheartedness that balances the difficult events in Liesel’s life reflected in Hans Hubermann’s accordion music, Rudy’s endearing crush on Liesel, Rosa Hubermann’s comedic griping, Death’s capacity to crack jokes, and Liesel’s own spunk. Despite the darkness and tragedy, the film also radiates a sense of wonderment, timelessness, and unsophisticated acceptance of reality that neither minimizes nor aggrandizes Liesel’s life experiences. By the end of the film when we learn of Liesel’s death at the ripe old age of 90, Death explains that Liesel was the only human who has ever caused him to wonder what it is like to live.
The Book Thief (2013) is a powerful expression of the richness of life and a summoning to remind each other of our humanity. In Liesel’s own words, “There once was a girl who had a friend that lived in the shadows. She would remind him how the sun felt on his skin, and what the air felt like to breathe, and that reminded her that she was still alive.”