One of the things I vividly remember my father saying years ago was that you don’t know what freedom is unless you’ve heard the knock on your door in the middle of the night. He would know since he escaped the Nazis after they took over his native Austria in 1938. Whenever I see a movie of that era I’m reminded how fortunate we are today and how we should never forget the tyranny of the Nazis.

Among the many new DVDs in our collection is one that focuses on that time period but doesn’t immediately jump out at you. “The Book Thief” didn’t get a lot of advance publicity. It debuted at the Mill Valley Film Festival which helps explain why it flew under the radar. How many people have even heard of Mill Valley besides fans of the old Doris Day TV show? This film, however, is a keeper.

“The Book Thief” is based on the best-selling novel. It’s a coming-of-age story of a young girl in Nazi Germany as World War II descends upon us. We witness all the ugliness of the Nazi regime and the horror inflicted on the Jews. One difference from other films of this genre is the brutality is not shown in a blatantly overt fashion. It’s impossible to miss however.

The film begins with the protagonist, a young girl named Liesel, riding on a train in 1938 Germany with her mother and brother on their way to be given up for adoption. Liesel’s mother is a communist and knows the kids would be in danger if they stay with her.

Liesel’s bother suddenly dies on the train and she is left alone to be dropped off with her new step-parents. Her new step-mother, Rosa, initially comes off as a cruel, unfeeling tyrant but her step-father, Hans, clearly has a kind heart. Liesel is immediately befriended by the boy who lives next door, Rudy, and the two of them develop a close relationship.

We soon discover that Liesel cannot read but has an eagerness to learn. With the help of Hans she develops a love of books which leads her to “borrow” them whenever she can.

As war draws closer and the Nazis increase their persecution of the Jews, a young Jewish man, Max, shows up at her parents’ doorstep looking for sanctuary. He is the son of one of Hans’ WWI comrades who saved his life. Hans told the family that he would help them if they ever needed it and that time has arrived. We suddenly learn that Rosa is actually a sweet, caring individual as she and her husband put their lives on the line to hide Max.

The film settles down into one where we see the developing relationships between Liesel and the other main characters as war, bombing raids, and the Nazi regime intercede into everyday life. It is a nerve-wracking time as Max’s survival becomes a daily concern. Nazi eyes are everywhere. Will these people be able to endure it all?

Many critics feel the film is either too slow or not realistic enough but it really depends on what you’re looking for. It is basically a story of ordinary but compelling people dealing with an impossible situation. You don’t have to see constant blood and guts to appreciate the Nazi menace.

The cast is excellent and played mostly by unknowns. Geoffrey Rush, who appeared in “The King’s Speech,” is the only one who looks familiar. Emily Watson is superb as the cold-blooded step-mom with a warm heart, and Sophie Nelisse truly comes of age as Liesel.

I highly recommend “The Book Thief” for anyone who is interested in a period piece on Germany during World War II. It combines a tender and heartwarming story against a backdrop of pure evil. It reminds us to appreciate never having to hear that knock on the door in the middle of the night.

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at co.david@4cls.org. Please note that all book and movie reviews are for titles that the Village Library has available for rental.

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