A pre-teen girl, Liesel Menninger (the extraordinary Sophie Nelisse) is handed off by her mother, who no longer can care for her , to a middle-aged couple. The time is pre-Kristallnacht Germany, 1938.
Her foster home is simple and impoverished. Her foreboding foster mother, Rosa Hubermann (the extraordinary Emily Watson) shows little affection, at first, for the frightened girl. But the irascible father Hans (the endearing Geoffrey Rush) comforts the shy twelve-year old with magical and fanciful allusions to literature and music, playing his accordion and composing songs just for her.