The World Premiere of The Book Thief with Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and Canadian newcomer Sophie Nelisse was held at the AMC Theater in downtown Chicago on Tuesday, October 22, 2013, with Director Brian Percival, Producer Karen Rosenthal, Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nelisse in attendance.
The novel by Markus Zusak was on the New York Times bestseller list for 8 years, so a ready-made audience should exist for this fairly faithful adaptation by the director (Brian Percival) who helmed the Shirley MacLaine episodes of Downton Abbey.
Death narrates the film. The voice of Death is renowned German stage actor Roger Allum, who begins by telling us, in voice-over as we watch a train in 1938 traveling the German countryside, “One small fact: you are going to die. My advice is, when the time comes, don’t panic. It doesn’t seem to help.” And, as Death later notes, philosophically, about WWII, “The excitement and rush to war…They thought they were running to their enemy when the truth was, they were running to me.”
Director Brian Percival told the audience that Allum’s voice was quite famous from his work onstage in Germany and he felt that the voice of Death should “have a warmth and providential nature.” The score by John Williams—one of the few not done for Steven Spielberg—“was based on the tonality of Roger’s voice,” said Percival. As Percival explained, “It was one of the rare moments that John Williams was not scoring a Spielberg film. It’s really quite something. We met up in Los Angeles and seemed to just get on.” Rush’s character (Hans Hubermann) also plays a concertina at several points in the film, which gives the film a very Germanic, almost folk music feeling.
Geoffrey Rush told the audience about his decision to play the role of Hans, “I had neither read nor heard of the novel, but then I devoured it. It had been on the Best Seller list for 6 years then. My teen-aged daughter said, ‘That book changed my life.’ I think I re-examined my relationship with my own children because of the book. I liked the fact that Hans is an extremely ordinary and very simple character. As the script goes on, you realize he was really a bit of a maverick, politically.”
Young Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse is the central character in the film since the action is seen through her eyes. It is only her second film role (the first was “Mr. Lazar”) and she gave up a promising career as an international-quality gymnast to take it. As Geoffrey Rush said, “Given that the material is fairly dramatic, Sophie’s a great clown. We bonded to the point that we tossed a coin as to who was gonna’ wear the hot pants. It worked out very well tonight.” He added, “Sophie and I bonded instantaneously. It felt like we were in the kitchen for months. Her performance was effortless. Her talent is a gift.” Rush added, “My first note to myself was, ‘Don’t act.’ With Sophie, I just watched and absorbed.”
Director Percival told the crowded theater, “We had a great atmosphere on set and we were just portraying a story of ordinary people who were twisted into being something evil.” The film shot in Germany for three months, from February through May, and real trains were used. “We had to ship them around the country to take advantage of the snow. We tried to make them as real and authentic as possible.” The cast agreed that shooting in Berlin was “spooky” as “Everywhere you go, you feel the atmosphere.” Since the film is set in WWII Germany. Swastikas appear at many points on walls, flags and uniforms and Hitler references abound, but, as Rush noted, “The swastika is banned in Germany now. Deutschland Uber Alles has been banned since 1946, so, in the scene where the youth choir sings it, the crowd had to be taught the words to be able to sing it.”
As the film opens, it is the blonde blue-eyed Sophie whom we see riding the train with her mother and infant brother when, without warning, Death claims her baby brother. The family-fleeing the war (Liesel Meminger’s mother is a Communist) stops and buries the small child in a hastily dug grave alongside the railroad tracks. It is here that Sophie filches her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook. This begins a lifetime love affair with the written word that will see young Liesel ultimately become a renowned author, even though she is illiterate at the film’s outset.
Times are tough. World War II is about to break out and Liesel must deal not only with the loss of her young brother but with the permanent departure of her mother. Ultimately, she will face the loss of her best friend and a set of foster parents whom she grows to love. Liesel’s adoptive father is played by Geoffrey Rush, perhaps best-known to audiences for his work in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but even more memorable as the Marquis de Sade in Quills, Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech, or Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love.
I asked Geoffrey Rush what his favorite film experience had been, to date, and he selected Shakespeare in Love, saying, “For me, as an Aussie, Tom Stoppard’s script was so great. Nobody is going to say, ‘I could do that better.'” He commended the esprit de corps of that cast, which he said also existed onset for The Book Thief.
When asked about the accents in the film, Rush said, “We all looked to young Niko Liersch, who played Rudy Steiner, because he came from a town outside Munich. But I met a fabulous dialect coach on the set of Shakespeare in Love, Barbara Bachree. And I’ve worked with her on several projects.” Rush, who grew up in Australia, identified the pirate dialect he used for his Pirates of the Caribbean role as “Bristol, west county of Britain.” [When asked if the next installment in that franchise would be in 3D, Rush said, “It’s been bumped till 2016.“]
In talking about differences between the book and the novel, it was mentioned that, in the book, the Hubermanns have a grown son who is at odds with them, politically, who has run off and is fighting on the Western front. Said Rush, “I suggested (to screenwriter Michael Petroni and Director Bryan Percival), “Maybe we should lean more on how Liesel perceives us? As the story goes on, we begin to see the more varied levels in the story.” Rush particularly singled out Emily Watson’s scene with Sophie Nelisse that takes place in the school, noting that it brought tears to his eyes when he watched it.The director also said that the book’s author, Markus Zusak, was consulted a great deal during filming and later told the audience, “I think it’s actually fortunate to have a book to refer to. We always wanted to be true to Markus’ novel, and we wanted to honor that and bring it to a wider audience.”
Emily Watson, who plays Rosa Hubermann in the film, is one of the few actresses to receive an Academy Award nomination for her very first film (1996’s Breaking the Waves). Her character plays a shrew with a heart of gold who is constantly harping at her house painter husband. Says her new adopted daughter (Sophie Nelisse’s Liesel) , “My new mother is like a thunderstorm: always rumbling.” At one point, a town official says to the good-natured Hans, “I don’t know how you live with her,” to which Geoffrey Rush’s character replies, “Neither do I.” However, as the plot progresses, we learn that there is much warmth beneath Frau Hubermann’s frosty exterior.
At the Q&A following the film, all eyes focused on the waif-like 13-year-old actress who is in virtually every scene of the quietly powerful film. She was asked, “What is your background?” Sophie replied, “I don’t really have a background.”
Producer Karen Rosenthal, however, shared information about Sophie’s previous budding career as a world class gymnast in Canada. Sophie, herself, admitted that she initially auditioned for acting roles to make money to further her gymnastics career. She ultimately made a decision to jettison gymnastics in favor of acting. When I asked her which pursuit was more difficult, she said: “Both are hard. My dream was to be like Shawn Johnson (Olympic gymnast from Des Moines, Iowa). But it’s hard to focus for 12 hours in front of a camera, too. But I had so much fun!” Sophie gave Geoffrey Rush much credit for the pleasurable experience she experienced filming The Book Thief.
The cinematography by Florian Ballhaus (The Devil Wears Prada) also should be singled out as truly outstanding, from the opening cloud sequence that swoops down on the train bearing Liesel and her mother and brother, to the scenes of the devastation of Heaven Street by Allied troops.
Without revealing the entirety of the plot, films that are similar in quality and quiet excellence include The Reader and The Pianist. I flippantly replied to one inquiry, “It’s like Schindler’s List, only there’s no Schindler and no list.” The film opens wide on November 15, 2013.