Her new parents are Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush), a sign painter and veteran of World War I, and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson), an angry and disappointed woman. Hans' warmth and gentleness make it possible for him to ride over Rosa's abrasiveness to help make a home for Liesl.
Initially illiterate (presumably due to having lived life underground with her fugitive mother--), Liesl treats books with an almost mystical reverence, that doesn't entirely go away once Hans has helped her learn to read. (That she's lived rough is also implied when, having been teased as a "dummkopf", she takes down the school bully with a solid punch to the head, and follows up with a ferocious attack-no "girly" slaps or hair-pulling for her!)
School life continues with the variations attendant on being in Hitler's Germany: general enrollment in the Hitler Youth (Ms. Nélisse, in an interview, said that wearing the uniform was creepy--), and attending the community book-burning session. This is where she 'steals' one book, a singed copy of "The Invisible Man" rescued from the pyre. (The book would have been condemned because H.G. Wells was well-known as a Socialist at the time--.) This doesn't mean that she has any reverence for Der Fuhrer: she jokes with a friend, imagining conversations between Hitler and his mother; "Who cut your hair?" "What's that on your lip?"
Although the story has elements common to a number of World War II narratives-Hans, Rosa and Liesl hide Max, the son of a Jew who saved Hans' life in the first war-its real strengths lie in showing how the lives of the common people were both similar to, and different from, other nations. The people still feel the losses of the last war, the wounds and the missing sons. In the new war, food and fuel become short; sons, and sometimes fathers, go away; there are air raids. But also, the local Gestapo man is not a cold-eyed stranger, but someone you've known for years, and is dangerous because he's too honestly friendly and knows you too well--.
Given the setting, it's not surprising that it's a sad story, but how completely, and how suddenly, is still shocking. Nevertheless, it's all very, very well done, and well worth experiencing.
Fine, fine performances by Sophie Nélisse, who goes from about age eleven to sixteen by the time the war ends; by Rush, who is charming as only he can be, with none of the smarm found in his "con-man" roles; Ms. Watson, as the woman whose stony façade cracks convincingly; and Nico Liersch, the German "everyboy" who befriends Liesl.
The film looks perfect, with "Heaven Street", where most of the action takes place, looking convincingly like an old, rather run-down European street, neither modern nor picturesquely Medieval. Costuming had some interesting details, such as the boys evidently wearing tights under their short pants when playing soccer in the early winter, and the elegant house coats worn by the Burgomaster's wife when at home.
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