Following an extraordinary evening presenting the film at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, with survivors in the audience, some of the people behind “The Book Thief” sat down for an interview. Director Brian Percival, who introduced the film, joined stars Sophie Nélisse, who plays Liesel, the title character, Geoffrey Rush, who plays Hans, her foster father, and the young Australian author of the book that inspired the film, Markus Zusak.
I began by asking Zusak about the book’s title. Is Liesel really a thief? “I remember reviews at some point said, ‘She hardly even steals any books!’ I added up one all of the books listed in the novel and there were about seventeen, mostly titles I made up, and I counted how many she actually stole. I decided she had stolen enough and it was a good title. It felt right. The Book Borrower? It wouldn’t work as well. It’s also different in the book when you make all those coincidences come together. But the book had a reason for the mayor’s wife to keep the window of her library open. She wanted it cold so she could go into that room to suffer and think about her son who died. In the Portuguese version, it’s called The Little Girl Who Stole the Books, and that sounds so poetic in that language.”
I asked Sophie Nélisse if it was hard to play a character who does not talk very much, especially in the beginning of the film. “My mom says that my face can say everything, so if I’m bored you can see it clearly on my forehead. I think it came naturally but it was wonderful working with [director] Brian [Percival], who always made me feel very special. If I did a scene badly, sometimes he would go, ‘Oh, can you maybe try this? Go a bit this way?’ He would give me maybe five corrections but would always end by saying, ‘But it was great’ or ‘It was perfect.’ He wouldn’t say, ‘Do this,’ or ‘I want Liesel to be like that.’ He would let me do it my own way and then he would guide me.” She has to look much older at the end of the movie — she said that makeup emphasized her cheekbones, and Percival added that they put a ramp and had her in heels to make her taller next to the other actors. “The Alan Ladd phenomenon,” joked Rush, referring to the notoriously short actor who had to stand on a box for his kissing scenes.
Rush said that for his character, playing the accordion was like a monologue on stage. “You read a script and look at all those elements — what does this character do, what do the other characters do to him and say about him, build up a portrait of what the personality will be. It was such a vibrant and wonderful dimension of the character. If it had been a violin it would have been a completely different experience. I loved the sound of the wheezing bellows. They were like lungs. I finally learned the fingering but my tutor would always say, ‘It’s the breathing and the flow.’ That’s a great image for the internal rhythm of Hans. There were seven pieces we did. One didn’t make it into the film, but it was a great way to segue the encroaching hostilities — I was playing somewhat facetiously outside the room when the children were singing the anti-Semitic song that had been taught to them. But the moments of ‘The Blue Danube’ in the bunker. You can see he’s brought it in to protect one of the dearest things in his life and it’s his way of keeping calm, being familiar, and it’s a classic German/Austrian piece. The piece he plays later is very well known to a German audience, an old freedom song, an anti-Nazi song. You’d like to think that’s his way of rehabilitation. He will get over the shell-shock and having been injured. There will be some regrowth in the character. I could express something about the character that was completely abstract. I would not say this film had magical realism, but as in the novel there were happy accidents that made it filmic. You can’t hear music in the book.”
Percival spoke about talking to the survivors following the screening. He acknowledged the difficulty of handling such sensitive material respectfully and was encouraged by the “incredibly positive” reaction of the people who had lived through the Holocaust, and touched that they wanted to share their stories with him, stories that included some of the kindness of German citizens like that shown by Hans in the film as well as the atrocities inflicted by others. “People actually sold out their friends and their neighbors in some cases because they coveted their property. I can’t think of much lower than that. I can understand if you fear for your own life or were brainwashed into believing something wrong. But to do it for material gain — that is heartbreaking. One of the guys I spoke to had been protected by farmers who hid him for two or three years right under the nose of the Nazi occupation of France, putting their own lives in peril, taking terrible risks, a noble act.” Zusek said, as he had at the movie, it was that which inspired him to write the book, the contrast between the best and worst of human behavior that the Holocaust brought out in people.