Michael Petroni’s screenplay develops most characters enough to make them believable. Isla Hermann (sublime Barbara Auer), for example, is not complicated, but Petroni gives us enough backstory that we understand why she’s sympathetic to Liesel (Sophie Nelisse).
Petroni, however, underdevelops Buergmeister Hermann (Rainer Bock) and Death (Roger Allam). We do not understand the Buergmeister, which is only troubling because of his importance in the denouement. In the end, we could have used more insight into this character.
Death is a much bigger problem. Petroni never defines why Death is so fascinated by Liesel. Might he be wowed by the amount of tragedy she has faced in her short life? Maybe. But that explanation applies to Hans (Geofrey Rush) and countless others, as well, so the question remains. Why is Liesel more interesting than the rest of humanity?
Even still, Death as narrator is inspired and works wonderfully, partially because visuals from soaring helicopter shots compliment Death’s omniscient narration so well.
Costuming, set design, muted lightning, and a toned down color palette do the same. These visual elements imply a harshness the general plot line often does not.
Moreover, Director Brian Percival frequently reminds us that we are watching Nazi Germany. He highlights the swastikas on students’ uniforms and the flags outside of people’s homes. He gives ample attention to Nazi soldiers, just as he includes patriotic songs and rallies. After these reminders, Percival trusts that we already understand the gravity of Nazi Germany, and thereby doesn’t focus on it.
It is a brilliant decision, because it lets Percival focus on characters instead, including some Nazis. We see several party members as human beings doing what they think best for their families. In this way, we gain some understanding how the Nazi party infected much of German society.
Moreover, Hans, Liesel, Rudy (Nico Liersch), and Rosa (Emily Watson) are well developed and sympathetically portrayed. We care about each of them.
If it sounds as though I love this movie, that’s because I do, at least through most of its run time. Until immediately after Hans makes choices that force drastic reaction from Max (Ben Schnetzer), The Book Thief is riveting filmmaking that delivers gripping character-centric drama.
But then the movie enters its final act and begins to rush; Percival and Petroni do not spend enough time with their characters in this final act.
That is further complicated when Death’s voice-over speeds through the climactic event. We do not even see most of the event Death describes. We only see its aftermath, which is troubling in its own right, because it is too clean, at least in terms of its impact on people. Its cleanliness provides too much melodramatic closure.
So it is that I wish The Book Thief had been fifteen minutes longer and had spent more time in its conclusion.
And yet, this is still a very good film, partially because of some terrific performances. All of the actors are note-perfect.
I recommend The Book Thief without reservation, despite its few flaws.