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The elevator pitch for The Book Thief isn't exactly grabby: the story takes place in Nazi Germany; it's narrated by Death; and almost everyone gets killed in the end. Yet both the bestselling novel and its screen adaptation have that certain ich weiss nicht that keeps people coming back for more.
For director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey), the uncommon choice of narrator was one of the main elements that drew him to the project, as he recently told a press gathering in New York. "It's the key to the whole story because that's what gives us a perspective on humanity," he said. Percival recalled telling the book's author, Markus Zusak, that he "didn't feel quite so scared about death" as he had before encountering The Book Thief.
To convey Death's "comforting" nature, Percival cast an actor (Robert Allam) with an "empathic, warm, velvety nature to his voice that makes you think that, well, when my does time comes it mightn't be so bad if a guy like that's looking after me."
While Death hovers over, at the core of the drama is tweenaged Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). Liesel's coming of age begins with the loss of her brother, who dies before her eyes, and of her destitute mother, who has relinquished her offspring to a working-class family in a fictional Bavarian town.
Liesel comes to the Hubermanns with baggage including the emotional kind and a copy of The Gravedigger's Handbook, which she snatched at her brother's funeral. Her foster father, Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush), helps Leisel with both. His warmth and solicitude allow her to feel at home while his lessons in literacy awaken her passion for the written word. So much so that she filches her second book of the narrative, one being burned in a Nazi book purge. There will be many more purloined volumes before the saga wraps.
The brazen young book thief strikes a victory for the creative act of storytelling as against the fascist crackdown on artistic expression. When Hans and his wife (Emily Watson) hide a young Jew (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement, Liesel's connection with words -- and with their secret houseguest -- significantly deepen. Along the way she and her foster family resist injustice with a range of actions that put their courage to test.
To find their Liesel, the filmmakers searched for seven months across four continents. It was Zusak who suggested the young Nélisse from Monsieur Lazhar. As Percival put it, the actress to play Liesel would "have to appear very vulnerable" but also "be incredibly feisty." Nélisse brought both a tenderness and a "fighting spirit" that stood out from the pack, not to mention a heightened spatial awareness thanks to her advanced training as a gymnist, said Percival. Prepping her for the role meant an immersion in the era.
"I read Anna's Suitcase when I was in sixth grade, but I didn't know a lot about about the Holocaust," said the 13-year-old Québécoise. Among the movies Percival had her watch were Schindler's List, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Pianist; and she was sent on a tour of Berlin bomb shelters. "I think that my generation...doesn't really know a lot on this period," remarked Nélisse. Now that she has aroused her friends' curiosity about the Holocaust, her hope is that "more people my age are going to know and it's going to be better for the next generations."
For the film's many German participants, recreating Nazi history brought up complex emotions. Singing "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" ("Germany, Germany over all"), the hallmark stanza of the then national anthem, itself picked a few scabs. The filmmakers had to teach 450 local extras the verses, which had been banned since 1946. "There were people singing that song as best as they could; it's hard to sing it with pride," noted Percival. "The mostly German crew were there with tears in their eyes because it was painful for what their forefathers believed in...some of the shame that they still feel till this day for the terrible things that happened." That the town square was dressed in hundreds of swastikas rendered the exercise all the more powerful, he reported.
Michael Petroni's screenplay distilled World War II information from Zusak's source material. Yet the book itself served as a valuable reference for this period film celebrating books. "We've got a 580-page book, which is a guidebook to the film," said Percival. Right down to the art department, its historical detail and "message about the human spirit" enlightened both crew and talent alike.
Rush described rereading bookmarked sections of the novel on nights before performing relevant scenes. "We all wanted to honor the book," said Rush. "There aren't major substantial changes. It's not like they've rewritten the end for the film or put in another character for some marketing demographic."
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