Despite the fact that societies have always tried to portray a great deal of respect for property, even in those realms where there were technically no property rights except for those in control of the state (like Communist states), there has long been a tradition of “good thieves” in literature and cinema, and the movie “The Book Thief,” taken from a German novel, fits right along with this tradition. Narrated by Death, which is a nice touch, even if a bit chilling, this movie shows a compelling and sympathetic group of people in a very difficult time as they face the inevitability of death and the reality of great destruction and danger simply for being decent human beings in an indecent time.
At the heart of the story is one Liesel Meminger, who we are introduced to by death when she is on a train as her mother is on her way to give her up for adoption, due (we find out later) to political reasons. For whatever reason, she was never taught to read by her birth family but is a curious and bright young woman who happens to steal a book at her brother’s funeral, which begins a very bad habit. I suppose every good person has to have at least one bad habit that makes life more complicated. Leisel reminds me of the sort of daughter I would have if I was so fortunate, with her curious and spunky nature, her passionate curiosity, her love of books, her deep and melancholy eyes, and her taste for dangerous political thought and behavior. For those viewers (or readers of the novel) who are as sympathetic to her as I am, the rest of the story fits together very well.
It should be noted that the film takes a very subtle and understated view of portraying the horrors of Nazi Germany. In showing the brutality of the Nazis towards Jews, the dangerous bravery of Leisel’s adopted family in paying their life-debt to the son of a deceased comrade of the protagonist’s foster-father in hiding a Jew from the horrors of the Holocaust and in standing up for Jews during various times. Despite the shock of some events, most of the time the film takes a very ironic sense of detachment in looking at the nature of Nazi Germany, including a rather chilling rendition of “Deuschland Deuschland Uber Alles ” as well as a very fierce Nazi anthem sung by the sweet voices of a children’s choir. The juxtaposition of innocent voices cheering on the beginning of WWII or singing rabidly nationalistic anthems is rather jarring and unsettling, showing how people learn hate and bigotry.
Yet people, if they are decent, can retain their compassion for others even among the horrors of oppressive governments and the threat of state-sponsored violence for living true to one’s ideals and one’s knowledge of the common nature and worth of humanity. Even if our social context places heavy constraints and burdens upon us, and pressure to be hostile to people simply because of age, religion, ethnicity, or social class, we have the ability to rise above it if we are decent enough. Being that decent and rising above the prejudices of our times and our social environment so that we can behave with the love and respect that we ought to is not an easy matter, but it is the only way to make a better life out of evil times.
It is not an easy thing to be a good thief, “borrowing” books and behaving justly in unjust circumstances. Good thieves tend to endure in history and legend for a long time. Who knows this will be the case for Miss Liesel, but it certainly has been the case for Robin Hood  as well as the good thief who was crucified beside our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. To be a good thief is a difficult task, but in an age where the rights of property and dignity are not respected for some in society, they become vulnerable for all. In such an environment, few will respect the property of those who are exploiters of people, who have stolen the wages and fruits due to those who labor. If we all wish to build respect, let us begin with respecting the rights and property of those who are least respected, and move from there, following the examples of the good thieves of our literature and experience.
 For those who are not aware, this is a song I have written about often: