The multi award winning novel The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak is set in World War II in a small German town. The town is disturbingly brilliant as red and black Nazi flags are everywhere. Death, the narrator, introduces Liesel, a little girl sent to live with foster parents when her young mother gives her up. With her new family she feels warm and safe, but Nazi storm troopers are in the neighbourhood rooting out Jews. A Jewish family friend shows up badly beaten, and hides in their basement. Every move must be measured so as not to stir up the suspicions of the Nazis or the neighbors.
The book which remained on the NY Times bestsellers list for 230 weeks is now a film starring newcomer Sophie Nélisse as Liesel and Geoffrey Rush as Hans her kind stepfather. Director Brian Percival tool care to suggest the realities of Nazi Germany but focuses his attention on Liesel’s story and the lives of everyday people living through the nightmare. We spoke with all three in Toronto:
Geoffrey, the scene of Nazis burning books is shocking, we forget that Hitler banned most literature and destroyed millions of books. How would an audience understand that now?
In the context of that scene the power and use of language is a symbol of metaphor through the entire film so for that scene to be accompanied by that speech. It was interesting letting that German actor do the Burgemeister speech in German. It is an English film but the titles start in German and convert to English and to hear the fanatical ideology being put into the community’s mind and destroying the ideas that are in books. I think people will read it as a form of censorship and repression in that life. That scene was shot in Görlitz in Saxony which wasn’t bombed so its gets used in a lot of films. The locals must be sick of all the recreations of Nazi Germany. But to see the power of that iconography, the red flags and red circle and black swastika, it’s what we call branding now, it’s deeply powerful. There are no words, that are what it is, wordless, and yet it is imprinted somehow. Towns were covered in these flags and symbols. People hung them out but they were misguided or because they had to.
Sophie you pretty much carried the film, what a huge responsibility for a twelve year old.
It was stressful because obviously I had to deliver a good performance, every day. You have to be at your best every day and I’m not saying I did a good performance, that’s for the public to decide, but it was stressful but everyone onset Geoffrey, Brian, Emily – we were like a big family and you forget the pressure. You feel you’re not alone, everyone supporting you and everyone’s equal so you’re not the only one going through this.
Your relationship onscreen with Geoffrey is so warm and natural.
We hate each other!! We were just pretending.
Were you aware of what happened in Germany during WWII?
Not really. I read sixth grade, watched some films. And I studied for this role watching Schindler’s List, The Pianist and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. One of the reasons I wanted to do the film was to tell my friends about it, I wanted them to know and pass it on from generation to generation.
Brian, it’s unusual to find a WWII film set in Nazi Germany that is uplifting and funny, yet retains realism. How did you keep the tone right?
It was good for contrast and part of the intrigue and interest. Usually films of that period are one dimensional. It’s first about the human spirit. I’ve not seen a film that looks at ordinary people in Germany in the 30s and they were corrupted into a belief system. Most thought it was right but it was terrifically wrong. These were just ordinary people who reacted in different ways. Some went along with it for their safety and the safety of their families and others stood up against it and bad things happened to them. It’s really about understanding people.
Why were you interested in this angle?
Would it have been interesting to explore the people who were Nazis with blonde hair, blue eyes and chiseled jaws? No, that’s not very interesting. What is interesting is that ordinary people were twisted into believing something so wrong was right. Geoffrey plays it beautifully warm emotionally intelligent character he knows what’s wrong. It’s difficult for him because he’d be taken away and disappear. It’s how they come to terms with living with that so no one disappears.
Death the narrator sounds seductive and warm. Why?
I hope people come away from the film thinking when that awful time comes it’s may help, it softens the blow, that it’s not nasty.
Can the film be shown to children?
It’s got a PG 13 which is fine, one or two younger children have seen it we tested lids of people involved in the movie and they considered it safe. A ten year old asked “Why were the Germans so horrible to the Jews?” They were questioning things. PG 13 is about right because it’s intellectually a bit tricky for young minds to get hold of. It’s not going to terrify them, but there is that complexity.