Death Becomes Her in ’The Book Thief’
From its opening moments - a sweeping view of a winter's landscape with a train moving through it - The Book Thief has the polished look of a lush war epic. Early on a velvety voiced narrator introduces Liesel, whose story of loss and survival during the Nazi reign in Germany is told.
The film is adapted from Australian author Markus Zusak's young adult novel that debut in 2005, was on the New York Times best-seller list for 230 weeks and has been translated into over thirty languages.
After her mother is sent to an interment camp for her political beliefs, Liesel, played with a curious mix of innocence and strong will in a child by Sophie Nélisse ("Monsieur Lazhar"), finds herself entrusted to a childless couple in a small German town. Her foster parents are Hans and Rosa Hubermann, an earthy father figure that contrasts with his wife, a no-nonsense homemaker, who are played with subtle nuance by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.
Beginning in 1938, the film follows Liesel over the next few years where she discovers the enchantment of books as she copes with growing up in Nazi Germany and the evils of a war that she is too young to fully understand.
The twist of the story is that the narrator is none other than Death itself - a device taken from the novel that informs audiences that someone is to die before the film is over. Yet, this Death is not grim. There is a hint of ironic mischief in his voice (that of British actor Roger Allum) in telling this life-affirming tale.
Helmed by Brian Percival (the director of multiple episodes of "Downtown Abbey"), "The Book Thief" is likely to be a Holocaust movie that vies for award attention later this year and early next. John Hazelton of Screen Daily claims that "Percival steers the action with a steady and assured hand, giving the dramatic scenes a quiet force that accumulates as the story progresses" while Associated Press’s Jessica Herndon calls the movie "a heart-stealing triumph."
Despite the dark period it depicts - a period when the Nazis began rounding up Jews and other political rivals - the movie is convincingly uplifting, Percival describes his first perception of Death in the script as "warm, witty and quite wry."
"I was intrigued by the fact that it could be such a positive life-affirming story because the human spirit can get through the worst of things," says Percival. "It (Death) has quite a great commentary on the lives of these common people that he notices and gets involved with ultimately in a way that makes him feel sorry (for them)... In many ways, Death becomes more humanized, makes him a little less threatening."
A personal connection
Brian Percival had earlier made a modest British film, "A Boy Called Dad," about a fourteen year old becoming a father; but it was his work with the globally successful "Downtown Abbey" which won him an Emmy. This led Percival to be deluged with screenplays. He chose this one after reading a few pages of the script.
Part of the allure of making the film is Percival’s personal connection to Liesel’s story. Coming from a humble background, Percival attended art school where he learned to look at the world a different way through books much the same way his spunky heroine does.
"I want to make this film a positive one about human spirit, (despite) the canvas of it that is painted on really is that terrible period of Nazi history in Germany," says Percival.
He hopes that his film will inform today’s audiences about that dark time, but that was never his original intention. "There’s a new generation going through right now that don’t necessarily know what went on. (With the film) they could then find out for themselves just what went on."
This is nothing new for films that deal with the Holocaust. "(It is something that) so many films, like ’Schindler’s List,’ have done so well in the past," the director continued. "While that wasn’t what we necessarily went for, the result is that people of a younger generation found out more about it. That’s a positive thing."
Like a Grimm’s fairy tale
Since his Oscar-winning role in "Shine," where he played pianist the emotionally challenged pianist David Helfgott, Geoffrey Rush has expanded his range to play larger than life characters, such as Barbossa in the "Pirates of the Caribbean," and such outstanding supporting roles as his Oscar-nominated turn as the unorthodoxed speech therapist Lionel Logue in "The King’s Speech."
"The Book Thief" intrigues Rush with its distinctive flavor that reminds him of a Grimm’s fairy tale. "The story declares very early on that even in this very small town. There’s a forest around it, kind of, where there are wolves that will tear you apart," the actor said.
"You know that people are going to die in this story," Rush continued. "It’s declared very early on that death will be a big part of this story. I remember having a conversation with Brian (Percival) one day saying, the really poignant and beautiful part of this story is you know the important, significant characters are going to die, but your hope is that none of them do because you get so engaged intimately with the ordinariness of the difficult circumstances that they find themselves in," he adds.
From gymnast to actress
What tugs at the heart of the audience is the connection between Liesel and her adopted father. It was Rush’s character that discovers the sparkle in the girl’s eyes and her little secret of stealing books with a desire to read. In real life, the young Sophie Nélisse’s passion is gymnastics. She started the sport when she was three and was almost training full time when she was twelve. After achieving national prominence in her native Quebec, Canada, Nélisse was aiming for the Rio de Janerio Olympics in 2016, but an injury changed her course, at least for now, and she was offered the role when Percival was impressed by her performance in "Monsieur Lazhar."
Nélisse felt an instant connection with the knowledge-hungry Liesel. "We have a lot in common," she enthuses. "I love to read. I think I’m brave. If I have a dream, I won’t give up. I love that the story is based on my character for about six years. So I got to play my character from ten to sixteen. I got to live her life for six years which I thought was amazing."
A great classic
Rush considers the book one of the great classics of contemporary literature, which he referred to often to capture the rhythm, pace and inspiration of his character. In fact, the novel’s author, Markus Zusak, was surprised at how well Rush knew the character, to the extent that he felt Rush knew the man way better than he did.
This is a role that Rush wants to play; still he was initially caught by surprise when he was given the role of the loving father, "I spoke with Brian on the phone and he said you’re going to play Hans Huberman? I thought he said you’re going to play Superman," he said laughing.
"I like this character when I first read this script because I’ve played a number of more eccentric people. It was the real ordinariness of this guy. (He’s not a) not particularly articulate, seemingly complex man. He is a simple house painter. He lives a very ordinary working class life in one of those very small nondescript, southern German town and yet, the more you peel away the layer of his story and how he appears to be, you realize that he is quite a radical person. He’s quite an emotionally sensitive person in music, and the detection of a spark of life in Liesel who becomes his reason to exist."
The Book Thief is in limited release. It will go into wider release on November 15, 2013.