Based on the novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is set in Germany during World War II. The story is narrated by Death (voice of Roger Allum) and is about the experiences of a young, highly spirited girl, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse). Liesel is orphaned when her mother is taken by the Nazis for being a communist. Liesel’s little brother dies on the train journey to their new home. At the impromptu roadside burial, Liesel steals a book from the gravedigger. The book is called The Gravedigger’s Handbook.
Liesel is handed over to her adoptive parents – gentle Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and sharp-tongued but kind-hearted Rosa (Lisa Watson). Liesl is initially withdrawn, but Hans reads to her from The Gravedigger’s Handbook each night. This forms a strong bond between them, as well as a great love of books and reading. Hans also teaches Liesel to read and write.
Meanwhile the Nazis are becoming more powerful. Liesel befriends her neighbour Rudy, (Nico Liersch) and together they attend Hitler youth meetings. They watch a book-burning ceremony and a denunciation of Jews and communists. This appals Liesel.
Liesel’s adoptive family are placed in grave danger when Hans and Rosa hide a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer). He is the son of a soldier who saved Hans’ life in WWI. Max and Liesel become firm friends and share their love of books and literature. Liesel ‘steals’ books from the Burgermeister’s wife (Barbara Auer) to read to Max. But war eventually comes to their neighbourhood. Death arrives and takes its dreadful toll.
The Book Thief has some violence. For example:
- Liesel is teased at school because she can’t read and write. A boy called Franz (Levin Liam) teases her badly. Liesel retaliates and punches him quite hard, leaving him with a bloody nose.
- Liesel is smacked by a teacher.
- On Kristallnacht, the Brownshirts start smashing glass shop windows. They punch, kick and attack people with rifle handles. They also drag people out into the street.
- Rudy is dragged home by his ear by a shopkeeper who sees him with his face painted black, emulating his hero, Jesse Owens.
- Franz, now a high-up member of the Hitler youth, pushes Rudy and orders him and Liesel to burn books.
- On another occasion, Franz attacks Rudy, pushing him to the ground and leaving him with a bloody lip.
- Soldiers arrest a Jewish butcher, and Hans comes to his aid. The soldiers push Hans to the ground.
- A truck is blown up.
- Liesel thinks she sees Max in a line of Jews being herded off somewhere and comes to his rescue. Liesel and Rudy are both thrown to the ground.
- There are war scenes of bombing raids. Houses are blown up and fires start everywhere.
Content that may disturb children
In addition to the violent scenes above-mentioned, The Book Thief has some scenes that could scare or disturb children under five years. For example:
- There are many scenes of war, burning houses and dying people.
- Dead bodies are shown lying on the ground.
- The German soldiers are all very scary and they act ruthlessly.
- The air raid sirens are very loud and people are huddled in bomb shelters. They are all very afraid, listening to the bombs dropping all around them.
In addition to the violent scenes and scary visual images mentioned above, The Book Thief has some scenes that could scare or disturb children in this age group. For example:
- Soldiers come to search Hans and Rosa’s basement. This is quite a tense scene while Max is hiding beneath a German flag.
- Rudy’s father is sent off to war leaving Rudy and his many siblings alone with their mother.
- Max gets sick. He gets a fever from lying in the damp basement and he looks awful. He almost dies.
In addition to the violent scenes mentioned above, The Book Thief has some scenes that could scare or disturb children in this age group. For example:
- Hans is conscripted and sent off to war. He is shown sitting in the back of a truck, which gets blown up.
- The line of Jews being led away is terrible to see. They all look gaunt and frightened.
- The street that Liesel lives on is bombed and many people die. Bodies lie on the ground. It’s a very sad scene.
Children in this age group could also be disturbed by the scenes mentioned above.
The Book Thief has some sexual references. For example, Rudy is always chasing Liesel for a kiss but it never happens.
Alcohol, drugs and other substances
The Book Thief shows some use of substances. For example:
- Hans drinks out of a bottle.
- Characters smoke.
Nudity and sexual activity
None of concern
None of concern
The Book Thief has some coarse language.
Ideas to discuss with your children
The Book Thief is a drama based on the Markus Zusak novel about a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany. It is a very well-acted and moving story.
Because of its violence and disturbing scenes and themes, The Book Thief is more suited to older children, teenagers and adults. At 131 minutes, it is also a long movie.
The main messages from this movie are to stand up for those in need and to make the most of your life because no-one knows how long it will be.
Values in this movie that you could reinforce with your children include:
- kindness and generosity
- the power of books and literature
- the courage to stand up for what you believe.
You could also talk about what happened in WWII and, more generally, the futility of war and the terrible waste of life it causes.