At the heart of Markus Zusak’s uplifting novel “The Book Thief” is a curious little girl. Liesel Meminger’s “crime” (referenced as a “thief” in the title) – a fascination with books and a desire to amass a collection of her own – pales in comparison to those being committed in the world in which she lives. She can’t possibly understand the tumultuous events happening around her, as war breaks out and she learns that a man named Hitler is responsible for tearing her family apart.
But as her foster father, Hans Hubermann, helps her read the pages of the books she’s so keen to take, and when she finds a friend in the Hubermann’s new basement-dwelling houseguest, Max, life begins to change for Liesel. Even in the darkest of times, the Book Thief learns the power of words, and how they can change the world.
Author Markus Zusak says he was inspired to write the book by stories told to him by his parents when he was a young boy in Australia. “It was like a piece of Europe came into our kitchen when my mom and dad told tales about growing up in Germany and Austria, the bombings of Munich, and about the prisoners the Nazis marched through the streets,” says the author. “I didn’t realize it at the time but those stories led me to want to become a writer.
With Sophie Nélisse set to portray Liesel, the filmmakers moved quickly to lock in their long-discussed choices, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, to portray Liesel’s new parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Director Percival notes that from the start, the consummate actors were in sync with his vision for the film. “I wanted to play everything very naturally, and that’s a style with which Geoffrey and Emily are very comfortable. Their work really transcends acting. They own the characters, they are the characters, and they all fit together beautifully. In working with Geoffrey and Emily, Sophie has probably had the best master class in the world because she absorbed the way they approach scenes and think about their roles, and you could see that rubbing off on her.”
From The King’s Speech to the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Oscar®-winning Rush has delivered a series of towering performances. With THE BOOK THIEF, he became Hans Hubermann. Rush credits the book and script with providing the initial critical path to Hans. “I think the book is one of the great classics of contemporary literature, and though I knew I wanted to play Hans after reading the script, the novel inevitably became a bible because it offers so much internal observation of the character, and his rhythm, pace and inspiration.” A house painter by trade, Hans’ constant companion is an old accordion that emits warm, wheezy chords of music. He appears to be an uncomplicated man, but is as complex as any Rush has essayed. “I think Hans’ greatest gift is that he has a very acute emotional intelligence,” which leads to an almost immediate and emotional rapport with Liesel, he explains. “Hans can read in Liesel that she’s been through very difficult times and he tries to find ways to draw her out.”
Says Rush: “Hans responds to the glimmer of energy Liesel has buried inside her and helps bring it to the surface. She starts to love language and words for the hidden powers they have, instead of the poisonous oratory and rhetoric surrounding them. Liesel finds an escape – a spiritual retreat in the magic of language. Once you understand the potential of language you can understand the potential of ideas outside of your own experience. I hope THE BOOK THIEF will have a similar effect on an audience. To me, it’s about discovering the value of empathy.”
Rush and Sophie developed an instant rapport that, says Rush, fed into the dynamic between their on-screen characters. “The great pleasure of doing this has been working with Sophie, who’s such a playful actress,” he says. “She’s extraordinary to be around, and I loved that in between takes of very dramatic scenes she would be playful. But when it came to playing the emotional scenes, I was flabbergasted by how focused and how emotionally true she was.”
Hans’ wife, Rosa, is an equally rich, surprising and complex character that combines a harsh exterior with well-hidden inner warmth. Rosa regularly calls her husband, “saukerl!” – German for filthy pig. “In some ways, Rosa is caustic and seemingly unforgiving,” says Watson. “She’s harsh with Hans and Liesel, not the sort of person you’d expect to become a foster parent.”
Over time and with her growing love for Liesel, Rosa is revealed to be a caring mother to her and a loving, if impatient wife to Hans. Says Watson: “Rosa has an inner goodness that almost always has her doing the right thing.” Watson gave considerable thought to Rosa’s backstory, particularly her marriage. “I think Rosa was young and beautiful once, and probably more soft-spoken, but the times have changed her. She seems like she’s angry and disappointed about pretty much everything in her life including her husband, with whom she’s at best dismissive, at times. But their love for each other is still evident.”
For Percival, working with Watson seemed destined to happen, because her film debut in the acclaimed Breaking the Waves was so moving and powerful that it led him to realize he wanted to direct films. Watson was busy at home with her children when she received the script for THE BOOK THIEF. “I sat down to read it that night, and I wept through it,” she remembers. “It was the best script I’ve read in years.” She was at once drawn to the idea that reading opens up a world of instant riches: “It’s a love letter to the power of story and the transcendence of story and storytelling and how it saves lives. That’s an amazing thing.”
“It was a time of extreme danger and evil and I was inspired by the acts of kindness during these very dark times,” Zusak continues. “That’s what THE BOOK THIEF is about: finding beauty in even the ugliest of circumstances. One of the central themes of the story is that Hitler is destroying people with his words, and Liesel is stealing back the words, and she’s writing her own story with them.”
“The Book Thief” opens February 19 in theaters nationwide from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Warner Bros.