Based on the novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief tells a World War II story from the perspective of Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), a 10-year-old who has just lost her mother and brother and is sent to live with adoptive parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). When she isn’t jamming out to Hans playing the accordion or trying to abide by Rosa’s house rules, Liesel likes to steal books and share the magic of reading with those around her. This includes a Jewish refugee they are hiding out in their basement.
We’ve seen many World War II movies set in Germany, but The Book Thief comes at it from another angle. Director Brian Percival paints a very fairytale-esque picture with dark nuances and a youthful charm via Nelisse, the breakout star of the movie who holds her own with two acting heavyweights. We had a chance to talk to Percival, Rush and the whip-smart Nelisse about the movie, creating a genuine father-daughter bond, and Nelisse’s real-life career as a book thief.
Paste: Hans and Liesel have a very close relationship. How did you bond, and how did that spill over into real life?
Geoffrey Rush: Yes, it did. You look at the call sheet and the first month and we spent it in the kitchen because that was the best set. It was too freezing outside on the street to shoot the exteriors. Not that we were doing everything chronologically but close enough to that so we were able to start with finding out how the life of the household functioned for Emily [Watson] and myself. When [the character of] Liesel arrives to the kitchen for the first time. I became aware that Brian was shooting very much her point of view She’s thinking, “ Oh my god, where am I? What have I got myself into?” She’s in a state of grief, having lost her brother and her mother’s gone to God knows where. I just watched this fine young actress dealing with those situations and responded accordingly because I think Hans has a kind of natural emotional intelligence.
Sophie Nelisse: Well, I just think from the beginning, he was like his character. He was really nice, and I was actually really stressed because I was scared he would think I’m bad because he’s such a great actor. (laughs) I think it just really came natural, and we just had a lot of fun. When we were not shooting, we would do fun stuff, and we would laugh. We would rehearse the scene in many different ways that didn’t have to do anything with the scene. It was just really fun.
Paste: Moving on to Brian, how did you manage to capture the era so well?
Brian Percival: I wanted to make something as honest and as natural as possible. I didn’t want anything to interfere with the story and with the characters. Any sort of forced style of photography would actually say, “Hey look, I’m telling you a story.” It had to be honest, and it had to be simple … and it just had to be really beautiful within that very poor area that they lived in.
Paste: How exactly did you translate that beauty?
Percival: I conscientiously came away from any stylistic approaches to photography other than when I first wrote this screenplay. I kept getting these top views of everything. In the novel, it’s narrated by Death and consequently, he tells the story. There was a stage production where, again, Death was very present, and he was telling the story to the audience. It struck me that the beauty of this story was that if we could involve ourselves with the characters and become almost like a character on the street.
Rush: The novel also is extraordinary with its language and with its sense of color—like on a phenomenal level. I can’t remember the exact opening words—it’s something like, “First, there were the people. Then there were all the colors.” When you read that you go, “What sort of book am I reading?” Color plays such an extraordinary role in a very unusual, synesthetic kind of way. Human beings will be described with an unusual color. The boy with the lemon hair, not yellow hair or blond hair, but it’s got some little quirk to it.
Paste: For you, Sophie and Geoffrey, were there any parts of your characters that relate to your real-life selves?
Rush: I suppose for me, my children are now young adults, but I’ve used a lot of memories of them in their early teenage years of when they were starting to become young adults. I could emotionally imagine if [Liesel] was my daughter, and she was in these very perilous situations, in a state of anxiety or terror in the community. What would I do to make things seem stable enough for her not to feel extreme fear as a natural part of life.
Nelisse: I try to imagine myself if I was 10 or if I was 16, and I think I do have some points in common with my character. I love to read. I think I’m brave. I think if I have a dream, I won’t give up. When I was shooting, there’s a store right in front of my hotel, and I stole two books—but I paid for them after. (laughs) I think that was a fun experience to be like my character.
Paste: Brian, what was the hardest scene for you to shoot? And Geoffrey and Sophie, what was the most difficult scene for you to act?
Percival: There were difficulties but only things like shoots at 4:00 a.m. and shooting minus 19 degrees. There were those sort of physical difficulties, but there was no real difficulties in anything that we had to shoot or anything that we had to perform.
Nelisse: I think it was just the last scene when I see my parents dead because, well, obviously my parents are not dead, so I never experienced that. My city has never been bombed, so it’s kind of new territory for me. This is not a usual thing.
Percival: But we put you in this little sort of bunker—that room in the cellar and that’s the one time in the film I’ve never seen Sophie more focused. We put her in this little hole, covered her in dust and we didn’t quite know what was going to come out the other side. She’s been absolutely terrific for the whole film but this incredible ability to snap in and out of the character. When we put her in that little semi-demolished cellar, we all held our breath for a little bit to see what would come out the other side. Everybody just had tears rolling down their faces when they saw that scene. She was absolutely incredible.
Rush:It was really devastating then to see the [bombed] backlot. The Heaven Street that had been created and we’d spend months shooting on it—we were so used to seeing the back of this street. Then we went off and shot some of the school things and left the studio for about 10 days, and when we came back to shoot that last day of filming, I remember Emily and I walked on set together. We both just burst into tears, and I said hold on to your hat because we were just devastated. The impact of the story really hit us. It was difficult to see that community completely smashed up.
Nelisse: I think it’d helped that the street was actually really bombed. It wasn’t like a green screen or anything, so when you walked out there would be like fires everywhere and we really were bombed. It was really hot that day, and my dress was sticking. I was covered in dust, so I really felt like screaming … so that helped with it. (laughs) Also that day I had to kiss Nico [Liersch], and I didn’t really want to do it. Everything added up: I had to cry all day; I had to kiss Nico. It was a whole mash-up of things…
Percival: That was actually the most difficult thing to film: trying to get the two of them to kiss.
Nelisse: He was like, “Can you try to be a bit more in love with him?”
Paste: Was there something you took away from the movie that you didn’t expect?
Rush: The accordion. (laughs)
Percival: Certainly it’s a deeper understanding of the history of that time but I never really wanted to ram this down people’s throat. What I wanted to do was offer it up, and if anybody thinks it’s interesting enough to find out more about, they will. I felt privileged to be there, to be given the opportunity to immerse myself in something where I wanted to know more about. I wanted to explore why ordinary people do the things that they do and are driven to extremes that they’re sometimes driven to—whether that be rejecting something or going with something. I’d just like to think that I came out of it with a deeper understanding of why people do things in the end.