THE BOOK THIEF
A New Family
With Sophie Nelisse 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. 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 characters, they arethe 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." (Zusak notes that Rush "knew Hans so well, that at one point I thought he knew it better than I did -- and that was a real thrill.")
Rush credits Percival with providing critical context to the dark times in which these people endeavor to not only survive but maintain all that they cherish. "Brian is an extraordinarily sensitive man to events and issues in the screenplay that are disturbing and overwhelming. We're looking at probably one of the worst chapters in history, not just in Germany but the whole nature of the Second World War, and he brings an extraordinary daily reality to what was going on."
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, sometimes by playing the accordion which he loves."
More significantly, Hans quickly recognizes her desire to learn to read. He encourages this pursuit, which becomes a moving element of their deepening father-daughter relationship. He patiently reads with Liesel the book she had stolen at her brother's funeral, The Grave Digger's Handbook, and from there works with Liesel to create a unique dictionary made up of columns of words and definitions painted on a basement wall.
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."
Having previously worked with Rush in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Watson enjoyed their second collaboration: "Geoffrey's onscreen outpouring of tenderness towards Liesel is so very lovely," she notes.
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."
Another new member of the Hubermann household is Max, a Jewish refugee who arrives there, terribly ill and seeking shelter from the Nazis' relentless pursuit. Hans, fulfilling a promise he had made years earlier to Max's father, to whom Hans owed his life, takes in the young man.
Liesel's fascination with her new housemate is heightened because they're kindred spirits -- both are displaced and without their families -- and they form a powerful bond. Their mutual love of books becomes as critical to their survival as food and shelter. Max teaches Liesel far more than just improving her reading skills; he teaches her how to use words, and thus gives her eyes to the world around her. From his new home in the Hubermann's dark and sometimes freezing basement, Max opens up a new world for Liesel. She becomes his messenger to what's happening in the world outside. Even her descriptions of everyday things, like the color of the sky and types of cloud formations, become poetic as Liesel learns from Max the descriptive power of language.
Ben Schnetzer, who portrays Max, was in his final year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in Londonwhen he was cast in the role and feels blessed to be part of what he calls "the type of project that makes you want to be an actor." To portray the starving refugee, Schnetzer lost 37 pounds in seven weeks -- and his first meal back home, following the shoot's completion was a large cheese pizza and two sodas.
"Max becomes almost a mentor to Liesel and he finds redemption and strength in the opportunity to open up a world to her through literature and words," Schnetzer continues. "Their symbiosis gets Max through each day and into the next."
Another transformative figure in Liesel's journey is her young neighbor and schoolmate Rudy Steiner. Liesel and Rudy become fast friends and do everything together, including stealing ("borrowing," Liesel insists) books. In fact, it is Rudy who nicknames Liesel, "The Book Thief."
While Liesel's passion is books, Rudy dreams of being a champion racer. His idol is African-American Olympic hero Jesse Owens, who achieved international fame by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Rudy even goes so far as to cover himself with black paint (which he stole from Hans' work cart), in honor of his idol -- a choice that's none too popular with a town being consumed with the doctrine of Aryan supremacy.
Young German actor Nico Liersch describes Rudy as, "always happy, nice to everyone, and never sad," and that description fits also the actor who plays him. Sophie and Nico became close friends during production -- though Sophie would squeal with laughter through almost every take while shooting scenes where Rudy tries to kiss Liesel -- much to the crew's amusement.
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