Australian author Markus Zusak’s novel “The Book Thief,” set in Nazi Germany, was extremely well received when it appeared in 2006, and now it’s been adapted for the screen. Brian Percival, who’s directed episodes of the popular “Downside Abbey,” helmed the film, which stars Geoffrey Rush as Hans, who along with his wife Rosa (Emily Watson) become foster-parents to the orphan Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), who becomes absorbed with books—and writing—after Hans teaches her to read. Liesel also becomes close friends with Rudy (Nico Liersch), an impetuous neighbor boy, while the family shelters Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jew hiding from the authorities.
During a recent Dallas interview, Zusak—who was joined by Percival, Rush and Nelisse—was asked the theme of his book and the film based on it. “For me,” he replied, “this was a book about a time and place where people [were] destroying people with words, and… a girl who’s stealing the words back and writing her own story, and it’s a beautiful story. What’s the message? Maybe it’s that stories really make us who we are—the stories we read and the stories we write and the stories we make. And it’s a question of what are our stories going to be each and every day, and what decisions are we going to make within that story.”
To a question about how well the film aligned with what he envisaged while writing the novel, Zusak said, “I always wanted the film to be itself. I can think of nothing worse than giving job a creative job to someone and saying, ‘Be creative with this but do it how I want you to do it.’ To me it’s almost like a translation in many ways. There’s color in the way Hans—Geoffrey—plays the accordion. There’s great color for me, as the writer of the book, in the Kristallnacht scene, where the kids are angelically singing while everything is happening in Stuttgart. And it’s in the performances as well—just one stare from Emily. To me there’s a great color in the slap [Geoffrey] caught on the back of the head [from her]—such a sad, tough scene, and yet you get these two opposites coming together. That’s what I loved doing in the writing—bringing opposites together—and I love the way the film has those comparative moods as well.”
Percival responded to a query about the film’s look by saying, “I never wanted to make a somber film. I wanted to get across some of the spirit of the people in that community. I didn’t want it to be drab, or gray, or gritty. Those people didn’t have a great deal in terms of material life, but [as a child] I remembered it as being a rich time, in terms of spirit, rich in the formative sense. So we talked about this with the production designer. I didn’t want to make it colorful, because that wouldn’t feel right. So somehow we had to retain its dignity and its humble nature but have a richness and depth about it that we found interesting and beautiful to look at. That’s how that look came about—from my own childhood.”
Percival also talked about casting, noting that Rush was the first to sign onto the project. “The second one to come on board was Nico [Liersch], who plays Rudy,” he continued. “We were in Germany, because we were producing it in Germany. And we got a note to go see a couple of boys down in Munich. We met them in the airport, and this beautiful blonde-haired boy—the great line in the book is ‘hair the color of lemons’—Nico came in, and he’s so charming, and bizarrely he told us that he was born, grew up in, and still lived in this town upon which the book is based—he actually came from that town. That was the moment when the hair starts standing up on the back of your neck.
“We were searching long, far and wide to find the Liesel,” Percival continued, “and eventually we came across Sophie. And Emily Watson has been someone I admired since ‘Breaking the Waves.’ I was so moved by her performance in that film. To have Emily and Geoffrey together, and then we’ve got these two incredible children…you are very aware when you’ve put things together that the chemistry will work. And I felt that it would. Sophie and Nico had a great relationship, and it became quite clear early on that she wore the trousers—which I thought was quite nice, because then you’ve got this relationship between Rosa and Hand where on the surface Rosa wears the trousers, but there’s a wonderful bond between these two. How all that dynamic fits together, I think we were blessed by an unbelievable cast.”
Asked how he constructed the character of Hans, Rush spoke of the process in straightforward terms. “When I read the screenplay, I absorb the emotional impact of the storyline,” he explained. “And then the next phase is looking at what he does. He has an emotional intelligence, and he has natural grief-counseling capabilities but he’s not a qualified therapist who’s got a degree, he’s just a human being who looks out for other people and takes on the plight of this newly-arrived foster daughter. I looked at those things at tried to highlight what value they would best contribute to the emotional temperature of the whole landscape of the film.”
He also talked about the relationship he built with young Nelisse. “We just played games to keep the spark and the energy of the day playful, because we knew when the cameras were rolling, we had to go into a different kind of dramatic rhythm,” he said. “We’d tell jokes and look out for each other, particularly in the early days. Because the amount on Sophie’s shoulders, I was aware as a fellow actor, is a big ask for an actress of any age. But she was pretty dazzling in how she took it all on. So we got together just by goofing off.”
Nelisse, meanwhile, talked about making the film as a learning experience in more ways than one. “We’ve never really learned about the Holocaust [in school],” she said. “We read [Karen Levine’s] ‘Hana’s Suitcase,’ and that was the only thing I knew. So I had to watch a lot of movies—all great movies, like ‘Schindler’s List,’ ‘The Pianist,’ ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,’ ‘Life Is Beautiful.’
“And it was really great that it was shot in Berlin, because everywhere you go there’s still a feel to it in the city, and everywhere you walk there are walls with information saying what happened, the facts of history. I went to see the movie with my best friend two weeks ago, and she’s really smart, but she didn’t understand everything. And that showed me how my generation, the kids my age, don’t know enough about what happened.”
Percival’s film joins those that Nelisse mentioned as a means of bringing that about.