If you wonder what’s so tragic about a young girl pilfering books, well, her father’s abandoned her, she happens to be fostered out to Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), and her brother dies on the way there. Oh, and they live in Germany when the Nazis were exterminating the Jews.

Liesel initially finds it hard to warm up to her new parents, until Hans starts calling her “your highness”, in jest. Slowly, she adapts to life in a tin street, and goes to school with her neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), whom, after Liesel’s first day of school, challenges her to a race home for a kiss.

Hans helps the practically illiterate girl read every night, starting with the how-to dig a grave book, the first one she pinched, before giving her the entire basement and its walls to develop her own dictionary.

The action and imminent war unfolds slowly, occasionally interrupted by Liesel crying over her biological mother at night and haunting scenes, such as a roomful of elementary school children in well-starched brown uniforms singing propaganda songs, probably without even knowing what they mean. The girl also starts delivering laundry to the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, who gives her access to their private library because Liesel reminds her of her late son, who died in Russia.

More excitement is in store for our young protagonist, when Hans decides to shelter a Jew Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer) to great risk to the family, something readers of The Diary of Anne Frank would be familiar with.

Max and Liesel strike a friendship; they share books she swiped from the mayor’s house, they built snowmen together. By the time Max insists on leaving, Liesel learns that she has a gift with words, which she uses to full advantage by reciting stories to neighbors whenever they’re stuck in bomb shelters during raids, and also by writing upon a copy of painted-over Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s book on his ideology, which was a Christmas gift from Max.

To lighten the depressing tone of the movie, there was also much well-needed humor provided by banter between the Hubermanns.

It’s hard to find fault the movie. And not surprisingly, the soundtrack written by John Williams, who’s responsible for a plethora of other award-winning movies, including the Harry Potter and Star Wars series, is nominated for this year’s Oscars.

Nélisse, who’d won acting awards since her big screen debut in 2011 as a 10-year-old, is spot on as Liesel, whose determination and tenacity she captures perfectly and the chemistry with Liersch makes for a very heartwarming friendship (that borders on romance) between both their characters. The same can be said of Emily Watson who nails the role of Rosa Hubermann accurately reflecting the way she was written in Zusak’s book — a woman with a seemingly hard exterior but so much hidden warmth.

Lovers of the original novel will be disappointed to find that Frau Holtzapfel is absent from the movie — imagine the arguments she’d have had with Rosa. The fact that all the characters spoke in English with a German accent also came across as ridiculous at times.


Rating: 4/5
Runtime: 130 mins
Language: English
Censorship Rating: PG
Genre: Drama, War
Director: Brian Percival

Main Cast: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson