Five years ago, someone in my book club selected The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak. As soon as I turned to the first page, I was mesmerized.
Let me preface this article by saying that I am Jewish and I’m someone who has always felt a profound sense of responsibility towards my people and heritage because of what happened during the Holocaust. I read a lot of books about this time period. I watch movies about it. I have even thought about going back to school to study the Holocaust. I am currently interviewing survivors for my synagogue and I’m also planning a Holocaust film series there that starts a week from this Sunday. I also used to interview survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation when I was in my 20’s and considered a move to Los Angeles to work for them at one point.
The Holocaust is an issue I take VERY seriously. So when I read this book, I couldn’t put it down.
The story follows Liesel, a book-hungry girl adopted by a German couple shortly before the start of World War II. When her family chooses to house Max, a young Jew, they immediately put their lives in danger and make sacrifices they never dreamed of making. Max and Liesel quickly cultivate a deep friendship and it is one that changes their lives forever.
I always wondered when it would be put on film, and I imagined that only Speilberg would find a way to turn its words to celluloid. After all, he made Schindler’s List and started the Shoah Foundation. His heart and soul would be all over a film like this.
But another film director has come along and taken the responsibility and he has done it perfectly. Brian Percival, a UK film maker, who happens to hail from Downtown Abbey, for which he has won many awards, has taken the reins and created one of the most faithful adaptations I have ever witnessed. He has clearly worked very, very hard to maintain the book’s integrity with his cast choices, production elements and attention to detail of the period as dictated by Zusak’s words.
The film is about the power of words and the author’s words created one of the most beautiful stories about a time in history we must never forget.
At a recent press screening of the film, I carefully situated myself in the front row. Armed with my notebook and pen to take dutiful notes, I embraced the next two hours. As soon as I heard the voice of death at the start of the movie, I knew Percival had remained as faithful to the book and this important time in history. World War II took the lives of six million innocent Jews and his film is a tribute to them and their lost souls. It’s about the fragility of life and the role that humanity has in preserving memories of a time long gone.
I was fortunate to spend an entire hour with some of the cast and crew recently at an intimate round table discussion last week. It was truly the most thoughtful, insightful and relevant discussion I have ever had at a press junket. Everyone involved with this film understands its significance and its role in making people aware of what must never happen again. Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush, two extremely talented actors, took on very difficult roles as the parents of Liesel and caretaker of Max with determination to make the details of the period accurate (according to Watson, they discussed how to hold a broom!). Sophie Nélisse, a very young French Canadian actress, with little knowledge of the time period, is very believable as a young girl living in 1938 Germany and took great care in her performance, including getting the German accent right. The three actors spoke to us about the importance of the film and the need for more films like to preserve a part of history we must never forget. Percival and Karen Rosenthal, the filmmakers, also answered our questions about the production with absolute candor and complete gratitude for our presence and genuine love for the story they are so proud for bringing to the screen.
The film starts out with the voice of death, much like the book, and the voice carries us through the destinies of the main characters in the story. At first I found it jarring but immediately remembered its cruciality to the novel. When asked about the use of death’s role in the story cinematically, Percival stated: “We’ve all had different moments in our life where we’ve sort of been touched by death in some way or another, at least through a relative or a friend or our own lives. And so that was so key because it’s a universal thing. It’s gonna happen to all of us. What I didn’t want to do is to constantly use his voice throughout the film because I wanted the audience to get lost with the characters and their story: Liesel’s story and Max and Rudy and Hans and all those different characters. But we are reminded of it. I don’t know, five or six times throughout the script, he comes back.”
“The device that I came up with to try and solve that problem was that, quite often, I think you’ll see that there are scenes which are shot from above or shot from quite high, and so that was a way that I figured I could remind an audience that we’re seeing this from another perspective, another entity that we feel somehow. He comes from above because he starts in the clouds and goes down to earth to visit these lives, ordinary human lives, and then goes back up.”
Emily Watson, who plays Rosa, a seemingly harsh German woman with financial and personal woes that seem to get in her way of pleasantry. But when Max comes through the door of her house, she does not turn him away. During the interview, Watson conveyed the significance of the film at this time in history: “In terms of the moment in history, that moment where the young boy falls through the door, and you’ve got a very ordinary person who’s quite cross about everything in her life. She’s very giving in that she runs the household, and she does everything, and she’s the one who does all the hard work, washing other people’s clothes, and she’s cross about that. But when that young boy falls through the door, it’s that, which way are you gonna jump? And she just instinctively in that moment does what a human being should do and what is right. ”
She went on to talk about filming in Germany (they shot at Babelsberg Studios) and how the experience impacted her: “That moment in history is incredibly current still in Berlin. They’re still rebuilding and surviving it, because after the war, their city was split, and then it’s still massively in their consciousness that they are recovering from that. But it’s incredibly honest. They’re not covering it up. Everywhere you go, there’s an exhibit about how many people died on this spot, and it was relentless, really. You can’t get away from it. But also being surrounded by people whose families all were there. You can’t really say, oh, thanks for the coffee, were your grandparents Nazis? It was a really weird etiquette of not knowing how to talk to people and ask people.”
Watson made every effort while filming The Book Thief to explore how the Holocaust effected German citizens, much like the non-Jewish character she was playing: “I met an actress whose family had been there. After a long time, I managed to kind of get the courage to ask her, were your family in, what happened in the war, is it okay for me to ask? And her eyes filled with tears, and she really wanted to talk about it, but she’d been brought up to believe that her grandparents and her parents, because she was then in East Germany, that they had not been involved, they had not been in any way compromised, and they’d been successful and strong people and good people. She’d sort of built her career and her life on that belief that I come from a stock of people with integrity, and then she found out it wasn’t true, that her grandparents had been in the Nazi party and that her parents had spied. It just all came out and she was devastated by it. She was really destroyed by it.”
The film starts out not long before Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, when the Nazis burned every sign of Jewish life they could, including thousands of prayer books, scrolls and philosophy texts. Leisel, a small girl who can not yet read, is struck with confusion at the sight of the fires. It is the first time the realization of the Nazi’s intense hatred for the Jewish people hits her. About the quick change in Germany and that particular moment in history, Rush said, “You see incrementally the escalation from Hitler ascending to the chancellorship through a democratic process and within a year declaring himself to be Fuhrer, and we’re dealing with a country at the height of the worst depression, and they lost the First World War, so they were in a state of disrepair there. A huge amount of people would have been seeking a Messiah, and some people would have really gone along with that because it reinstated their faith in German heritage. Let’s not forget, it has a huge literary, philosophical, musical, rich background, Jewish and German. You know what I mean. And it kind of went really out the window.”
About playing a German who was faithful to his people but in many ways ashamed, he said, “So, someone like Hans–I was interested. The statistics of people who were a little bit more bold in their statement but they still had to play the game, it was maybe less than 10 percent of the population that said I don’t really like where the Fuhrer is going. I’d say a huge chunk of the rest of the people were self-protective.”
At the start of the film, we see Max leave his family behind in fear of being killed by the Nazis, and we get glimpses of Hans painting store windows. Even Rush agreed that his character appeared as a very different being at the start of the film compared to the bravery he displays later on: “And even Hans, you might think he’s a drifter, but then, you think, well, hang on, he’s actually a political maverick because the connection is that he has sort of sent the word out to Max. It’s very swift in the screen play when Max leaves his mother.”
“But, Hans, when he hears the knock on the door, he knows, ah, he’s here. How long it took him to get there – three or four weeks, I don’t know.”
I asked Percival if he took the cast to the Jewish Museum in Berlin or the concentration camps in Germany whilst filing the movie. He responded: “Until you’ve actually gone to stand in that place and you walk through those corridors and those buildings, I don’t think you ever really realize just how horrific the whole thing was. The camp that’s featured in the book is Dachau. The Nazis tended to have their death camps outside. Dachau now is just a memorial. There’s nothing really. There are no structures left. But, I think once you visit one of the camps outside Germany, it’s just unbelievable. I’d advise just anybody who gets the opportunity to go and do that just for the sake of knowing that nothing like that should ever happen again.
Nélisse, who plays the central character in the film and whose image is on the film’s poster, didn’t know a lot about the time period before making the film: “I read a book called Hana’s Suitcase when I was in sixth grade, but that’s the only thing I knew. To know what happened in that period, I had to watch a lot of movies like Schindler’s List, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and also The Pianist. When I was in Berlin, I went to see some bomb shelters or some historical things like the Berlin Wall.”
When the filmmakers were looking for the right Leisel, Marcus Zusak mentioned Monsieur Lazhar, a film she had starred in. “We got her to self tape, and she was Liesel,” said Percival. “It’s difficult to ask somebody of that age to rely on technique or to just purely become a character like Emily Watson becomes a character because they haven’t the life experience to do that. So the crucial thing is that we choose somebody who’s as close to Liesel as possible, and then I allow them the freedom to be who they are, guide them in a certain way and tell them if something’s too far in one way or too much or too modern or too fast or too slow. But, essentially, the actor that we choose has to be Liesel. ”
Speaking of children, the film, like the book, is being marketed for young adults. When the other writers at the table and I expressed concern for young children seeing the film, producer Karen Rosenthal said, “I think that every mother and every father hopefully knows what their child can handle. I think that it’s about words, it’s about the power of words, it’s about the experience. There will be questions. But I think that this is the kind of movie that garners questions and the kind of discussion that needs to happen, so it never happens again and so that parents or guardians or teachers can impart to younger members of the audience the power of a word and meanings of words. That’s what we hope that they take away. We also hope in this time of video games, iPads, this, that and 3,000 other things, that the joy of reading is somehow imparted because there’s no better experience to open a book.”
What will strike you when you see the film is how faithful it is to the book (so get reading now). Whether you know something about this period of history or not, it will get you thinking about the people that were left behind. And it may teach you about death. At least that’s what Percival wanted:
“I think that the whole thing that struck me, and something that we tried to get across, when I first read the script and then read the book was that, I know it sounds weird, but death could be beautiful in a funny sort of way. It doesn’t have to be this horrible dreadful demise that we all fear. And indeed, many people that have read the book have actually, myself included, come away from it feeling that when the time comes, it might not be so bad if you’ve got somebody to look out for you. So there was an inevitability about what was going to happen as soon as death finally arrived in the film. We had this velvety soft confident voice in many ways. I think that was the intention. That was the time that it really didn’t go too hard and too real. I wanted this to go to as wide an audience as possible because the disparity of the book is the most wonderful thing about it.”
This film left an impact on me and it will leave an impact on you.
The Book Thief will be released in select theaters November 8th.
Disclosure: I was not compensated to write this post, however I attended a press screening and junket for the film. All opinions are my own.