While there's a strong story in here about the power of literature and the fragility of life, this movie takes a far too wistful approach, so it feels like a cheesy bedtime yarn rather than a look at horrors of Nazi Germany. As a result, it's difficult to feel the full force of either the wrenchingly emotional events or the provocative themes.
Set in 1938, the story opens as irreverent 12-year-old Leisel (Nelisse) is taken away from her mother, who is accused of being a communist. She's then adopted by the childless couple Hans and Rosa (Rush and Watson). But while the cheerful artist Hans makes her feel at home, Rosa is relentlessly harsh. Leisel also reluctantly befriends neighbour boy Rolf (Liersch) and embarks on a series of adventures, including stealing books from Nazi book-burning rallies. But the mayor's wife (Auer) doesn't mind Leisel stealing books from her library. And when Hans and Rosa take in a Jewish refugee boy (Schnetzer), he encourages Leisel to start writing her own stories.
Oddly, director Percival softens every dark element in Petroni's screenplay. The Nazis are like school playground bullies, while the Allied bombings leave buildings in rubble but dead bodies bizarrely intact and peaceful. Even the setting looks like a fairy tale, with magical snowdrifts and fanciful spires. And the strangest touch of all is the cheery voiceover narration by Death (Allam), which turns the most horrific atrocities into a kind of wry eventuality. Watching brutal murder presented as a sort of poetic justice is deeply disturbing.
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