THE BOOK THIEF
Shooting on THE BOOK THIEF began at Studio Babelsberg, in Berlin, Germany. There, the unit used sound stages, where production designer Simon Elliott (The Iron Lady) crafted the Hubermann's House on the fictional Himmel Street. ("Himmel is the German word for "heaven" or "sky.") When not on the stages, the production filmed on the studio backlot, where Elliott built the exterior of the house, one of several in the neighborhood. Elliott also revamped Babelsberg's backlot into the story's Munich Street.
Elliott credits Percival and the design team for inspiration, as well as Zakus' vivid prose. "I'd read the book and absolutely loved it," says Elliott. "I knew the potential for designs was going to be enormous. Markus writes very visually. He references colors all the time, and his writing has many descriptions that were very helpful."
The filmmakers scouted the breadth of the country in search of Himmel Street. The importance of getting it right was central to Elliott's vision. "It is such a popular book that everyone has their interpretation of how Himmel Street should look. Germany is a very progressive country and is developing very fast so many of the historic smaller rural areas have been modernized. We found little bits of Himmel Street all over the place but we just didn't want to compromise. So we built it."
Elliott explains that understanding the demographics of the characters living on the fictional street was key to creating an authentic space. "They're not wealthy, nor are they out-and-out poor; they are working people so the buildings are a little run down, and not at all grand."
Elliott and his team spent ten weeks building a large hill at one end of Himmel Street during some of the coldest weather Berlin had seen in years. The control afforded by building the street from scratch allowed Elliott to create the shocking aftermath of a bombing raid, for which they added 1,000 tons of rubble.
Inside 33 Himmel Street, Elliott and director of photography Florian Ballhaus, ASC (Red, The Devil Wears Prada) created a warm and inviting space. "Historical films are so often drained of color, but there is so much color in the book I thought it was important to maintain that, in order to give the film depth and richness. There is great heart to THE BOOK THIEF. It's a very human story and although it takes place against the backdrop of a difficult period, it's about loving relationships. By giving a richness of color to the home and to the film overall, we reflect that warmth and the good that can come from a terrible situation."
The basement set, where so much of the story's emotional moments unfold, presented formidable design challenges. "We knew the ceiling had to be low and that the walls would be covered in Liesel's handwriting and dictionary. To give the space some depth we put the staircase in the middle of the room, enabling the camera to move more freely. The presence of items such as stored vegetables, pickling jars, and Hans' paint cans, brushes and tools connects the space to the rest of the house."
Midway through the shoot, the production relocated to Gorlitz, the easternmost town in Germany, located on the Lusatian Neisse River in the Bundesland of Saxony. It was here that production captured one of the film's key set pieces, in which the German Student Association of Nazi Germany ceremonially burn books by authors whose writings were viewed as subversive or whose ideologies undermined the National Socialist administration.
The emotionally charged, large-scale sequence finds Liesel bearing witness to the destruction of thousands of books as the townspeople cheer. In the aftermath of this shocking display, Liesel, "the book thief," rescues a single volume, its pages still smoking with heat.
Over three nights, with temperatures plummeting to minus-two degrees Fahrenheit, cast and crew, and 450 extras, wrapped in blankets when the cameras weren't rolling, worked through the night to capture a dark time in global history with chilling authenticity.
The square was dressed with huge swathes of swastikas -- unsettling emblems in today's Germany. In fact strict laws in the country prohibit the display of Nazi paraphernalia in public places, so the filmmakers had to obtain special permission to dress the town square. The production also shot at Villa Herz, a 120-year-old historical house in Wannsee, which doubled for the Burgermeister's Mansion, from which Liesel borrows books.
After production wrapped and Percival and his post-production teams began their critical work, Zusak was asked about his hopes for what audiences take away from the film based upon his book. Again, he says, it all comes down to the power of storytelling, be it in literature or film -- and most importantly, the ability within all of us to persevere and even triumph in the face of the most formidable obstacles.
"I think people will find THE BOOK THIEF moving because the characters somehow find beauty and selflessness and do amazing things despite incredibly trying conditions."
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