The film version of Markus Zusak’s young adult novel “The Book Thief” has opened in select cities in the US and is poised to expand throughout North America this week, reaching Israel by March of 2014.
The movie strikes an odd tone between magical fable and harsh realism, and quite frankly, has some problems. But there are a number of scenes (and themes) that still make it somewhat worthwhile, and it features strong performances by Geoffrey Rush as the proverbial “Good German” and newcomer Sophie Nelisse as the young girl clinging to her innocence during World War II.
In the tiny house on the cobblestone fictional city is a small island of righteousness in a sea of enveloping evil. Rush and his wife (Emily Watson) are hiding a Jew in the basement at great personal risk. They are defiant, inasmuch as they are not members of the Nazi party. Yet they still function in society and their neighbors, some of whom can’t wait to join the battle, are oftentimes looked upon with kindness. This is a movie that, if nothing else, doesn’t offer up the typical representation of “movie Germans.”
I had the good fortune to speak with the film’s director, Brian Percival, best known for his work on BBC’s “Downton Abbey.” Excerpts of our discussion follow.
You didn’t shoot this on a London or Toronto or LA soundstage, but went out of your way to go to Poland and Germany. Were you worried about bringing bad vibes to the set? There are a lot of scenes with Nazi flags perched all over the place.
We looked at Czechoslovakia [sic] and elsewhere but there was something about Germany that leant authenticity. We also were able to bring on about 25 German actors with speaking parts, as well. It probably wasn’t the cheapest to shoot there, but we also had a German historian on set. But we had to get special dispensation from the authorities to put up flags with swastikas, because it is banned to own one let alone display it.
‘We had to get special dispensation from the authorities to put up flags with swastikas’
At the scene with the book burning we had about 450 German extras, and they are singing “Deutschland Uber Alles.” But the two verses that were sung were banned, so we had to teach them the words. They’d never heard it – it’s been banned since 1946.
I remember filming that sequence and it was really eerie. We’ve all seen the swastikas in books and other films but when you are standing in a town square it is… it is not pleasant.
I looked around there were around three or four members of the crew, including my director of photography who is born in Berlin, and they had tears in their eyes. A definite sense of shame about what they felt their forefathers were responsible for. The atmosphere of 450 people singing something horrible and representing hatred… it has an effect and it was quite poignant.
This is a bluntly humanist film which tries to put the audience in the shoes of an average German, to ask “how would you act differently?” What you see in the book burning sequence is how easy it would have been for our lead character – the young girl – to have been brainwashed. Had it not been for one stray comment that reminds her of her mother, that might have been the tipping point to her growing into a Fascist.
It’s about the corruption of innocence. Hitler was able to corrupt an entire generation in twelve years and change the world.
When I started this movie I felt that I needed to visit the landscape – to go to Munich where it all started. What struck me was how everyone was well-mannered, and it was clean and tidy. There’s a quote, I believe it is from Lenin, “If the Germans staged a revolution at the train station, they would buy tickets for the platform first.” There’s this notion that there is something in the psyche to go along with what they are told.
Now, that part of Germany, there wasn’t even any rationing until 1942. So those people, they didn’t feel the war, it was just something in the background. That struck me as alarming, and I realized that that is how you get ordinary people corrupted into support something. People who succumb to propaganda.
Certainly there were terrible people who supported the effort, but also people who weren’t affected by the war to the point of making a decision.
Or people who don’t support the Nazis, but what they do about it? There’s the sequence in your film where our characters don’t want to celebrate Hitler’s birthday – but they have to hang a flag or it’s going to mean trouble for them.
The whole reason Hans [Geoffrey Rush] can’t get any work is that he isn’t a member of the Party.
It’s interesting to think about, because if Hans never hid Max in the basement — if Max didn’t come to them for help – there’s a good chance that Liesel, the little girl, may never have learned of Hans’ anti-Nazi beliefs. He may have hid them from her for her own protection. And, as a result of this, again, she may have kept on singing the hymns and burning books to eventually become a Nazi herself.
To a degree. I get the feeling, at least in this fiction, that when Liesel got to a certain age, especially reading books, she would have grown into a morality. But the way the story plays out Hans is forced to make a decision. The key thing is that she discovers her beliefs – she says “I hate Hitler” — before Max arrives. The first book she steals is just a reflex – she wants a memory of her brother. The second book she steals is an act of defiance because of the book burning.
Max gives her the blanked out version of “Mein Kampf” and books as symbolism is all over the film. It’s a little bit perfect, as there is the description of Jewish people as “People of the Book.” And here are non-Jews clinging to books and reading as a way to identify with Jewish people.
That’s an interesting point. Not something that was intentionally pushed, but Max really is the person that gets Liesel to see the world a new way. He’s an incredibly positive force for her. He gives her the gift to change her life.
Rudi, the neighbor boy, is a fascinating character. He’s the Perfect German Youth – an athlete, Aryan, being bred for special forces in the army. In another movie, he’s the arch-villain. Central casting for goose-stepping. In this movie he is a young boy, not bred into evil. So you are rooting for this kid – rooting for a Nazi.
The whole film is about that contrast. I like challenging an audience. He’s filled with youth and innocence – he loves Jesse Owens, that’s his hero, yet he’s in a Hitler Youth uniform. It pulls the audience two ways. It’s important to do that to understand what happened.
Most movies have Nazis that are one-dimensional evil cardboard cutouts. Smoking a cigarette or with an eyepatch. Portraying them that way is dangerous in a way. It dismisses what really went on. What happened was that ordinary people turned into those people. And it could easily happen again.
But Rudi doesn’t really understand what’s going on. Liesel does. When his father is taken away to war he starts to put it together, and then he eventually shouts “I hate Hitler” with Liesel later. We like him, we forgive him, we ultimately realize he’s an innocent and that’s why it is tragic when he dies.
Tragic when he dies, but also tragic had he not died – because what would he have become?
Exactly. No escape for him, really. The ones who tried to stand up and say “no” just disappeared.
The music in this film is absolutely gorgeous. As I was watching I thought to myself “gee, who did they hire, John Williams?” Then the credits come and I see it is John Williams. He, of course, known for the score of “Schindler’s List,” among others. How the heck did that happen?
My first Hollywood movie and John Williams did the score. Don’t know how it happened, frankly! I grew up with “Indiana Jones” and all those movies. I couldn’t believe I got a chance to meet him, let alone work with him. My biggest concern was that the music shouldn’t be bigger than the film. And John is known for big scores like “Star Wars” and “Jaws,” but he had the same idea as I did. He wanted to do this because he is known for bigger pieces and wanted to try something new.
The Book Thief is released by 20th Century Fox and it’s the type of thing that gets nominated – but doesn’t win – at the Academy Awards