During the Second World War, a young girl (Sophie Nélisse) develops a passion for reading thanks to the support of her new foster family and the Jewish refugee (Ben Schnetzer) hiding within their house.
CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Any adult who starts to watch a film set in Germany starting in February of 1938 probably suspects that unpleasant narrative developments may ensue. That the story is narrated by Death himself is what some might call a dead giveaway. But Liesel, the title character of best-selling Australian author Markus Zusak's The Book Thief is only 11 years old and has no idea what historical and emotional upheaval awaits.
The story has a surprisingly fresh feel to it for a tale that includes Nazis and at least one clandestine Jew.
Since we see events through her eyes, the story has a surprisingly fresh feel to it for a tale that includes Nazis and at least one clandestine Jew.
All of the characters are 'ordinary' Germans, most of whom are decent people. This, too, feels surprisingly fresh.
Condensed from the young adult novel's 580 pages, the film adaptation of The Book Thief gets underway as director Brian Percival's camera floats over the clouds then plunges nimbly through the cumulous clusters to home in on a mother, young son and daughter aboard a train chugging through snow-covered territory. In a matter of minutes, the boy has died and is being buried by the side of the railroad tracks.
From the description thus far, if you're a parent you're probably not thinking "I simply must grab the kids and take them to see this!"
But that is what you should do.
"What I had in mind was a sort of fairy tale that would make people leave the theatre less afraid of death, less apprehensive than when they went in," Percival explained at the Chicago International Film Festival where on October 22 the film was shown for the first time in its finished form as it will be presented worldwide.
At her brother's makeshift funeral, Liesel – splendidly played by French Canadian Sophie Nélisse, who made a strong impression in Monsieur Lazhar – picks up a slim black book that slipped out of a gravedigger's pocket and appropriates it. Aside from her memories she has no other token connected to her brother except a small ID photo.
Liesel is sent to stay with a modest middle-aged couple, foster parents who receive a stipend to take her in. The woman, homemaker Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson) is sternly no-nonsense. The man, Hans (Geoffrey Rush), a house painter, has a gentler approach to life in general and Liesel in particular.
When it becomes clear that Liesel can't read or write, kindly Hans teaches his new daughter to do both. And the power of words changes her life. That sounds smarmy, but it's presented in a manner that enforces the notion that after water, food and shelter, words are one of the very best things life has to offer.
At some point after Kristallnacht – November 9-10, 1938, the notorious Night of Crystal or Night of the Breaking Glass during which Jewish property, starting with store windows, was smashed and places of worship were destroyed by viciously zealous Nazis – Max (Ben Schnetzer), a fleeing Jew near collapse, appears at the Hubermann door.
Why would you risk secretly sheltering a Jew in your home at the height of Nazi rule? The Book Thief provides a very good reason. Not flashy, not convoluted, just convincing.
Max is in for a very long stay during which it is unthinkable for him to go outdoors. Liesel hones her powers of observation by describing the outside world to him. And she reads to him. Her foster parents don't own any books, which means that Liesel has to 'appropriate' volumes from an unlikely source.
The books Liesel 'borrows' are worth reading. If you snuck into someone's house nowadays to grab reading matter, you'd probably risk getting a celebrity cookbook or a guide to losing weight while eating everything in sight. Liesel's classmate and adventuresome pal Rudy chastises Liesel for swiping literature rathar than something edible but Liesel is looking for long term nourishment.
Reading and writing are far greater innovations than goose-stepping and figuring out how to put enormous swastikas on really big banners.
Blonde with a sweet face and a generous personality, Liesel's neighbour Rudy (Nico Liersch), is an adorable Aryan specimen. But he sees no particular inherent value in having pale skin and blonde hair. Rudy runs track and his hero is Jesse Owens the black American athelete who triumphed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, enraging Hitler.
Rudy is so taken with Owens' excellence as a runner that he smears black gunk on his own skin. While silly, Rudy's gesture makes more sense than villfying all blacks and Jews as a source of genetic pollution.
It's a bit scary how poised Sophie Nélisee is in real life. Right now the talented 13-year-old (she was 12 when the film was made, over a period of 3 months at the Babelsberg Studios and on location) seems like a surefire finalist for the Least Likely To Get A Swelled Head Award.
"We don't learn about the Holocaust in school," Nélisse explained at the film's showing at the Chicago International Film Festival, "so I watched a lot of movies about that period in history. Schindler's List, The Pianist, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Life is Beautiful and I thought 'I can't believe this was happening'."
When asked what her background is, Nélisse replies, "I don't really have any background. I used to do gymnastics at the national level. I started acting to raise money for gymnastics, because it's very expensive."
Rush admitted in Chicago that, "Shamefully, as an Australian, I hadn't read the novel. I hadn't even heard of the novel. But I read the script and then I devoured the book. The emotional core of the story starts in a state of dislocated grief."
As for Hans, said Rush, "You think he's quite simple but then you realize he's a bit of a maverick, that politically he's part of that 10 percent of Germans who did not like the direction the Fuhrer was taking the country."
Rush also explained that he and Watson decided to play their roles from the child's point of view. "I'm basically the happy woodcutter and she's basically the evil stepmother."
Rush is gearing up to play Ra, the Egyptian Sun God. "It's being shot in Australia next March. I'm looking forward to seeing that role on my C.V.. A year ago I played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. I thought 'What could top that?' Ah: Egyptian Sun God!"
Ancient Egypt had its rules and so does modern Germany, which meant getting special permission for certain aspects of the production's design.
"It's against the law to display a swastika in Germany and for the sequence where the choir sings 'Uber Alles' we actually had to teach them the first two verses because it's been banned since 1946," Percival told the Chicago audience.
The film is almost entirely in English, with the occasional "Ja" or "Nein" but the actors do affect Germanic accents. "We looked to Nico Liersch, who plays Rudy because he's actually from the area where the story is set," said Rush, who has worked on 7 or 8 occasions with the dialogue coach he first encountered on Shakespeare in Love.
"I'm not naturally very adept at accents," said Rush. "I have to labour over them and drill them in."
The promotional campaign in the U.S. featured an ingenious stunt: two consecutive deliberately blank pages in The New York Times adorned only by a web site address.
Liesel has nothing but herself when the story begins. What she has when the film ends is as astonishing as it is heartening. If you're currently scared of that faceless fellow in a shroud holding a sickle, when you leave the cinema you may be slightly less disturbed about the fact that he has you pencilled in under "inevitable appointments".