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‘The Book Thief’ Steals Hearts on the Big Screen

November 14, 2013 By:
Michael Fox, JE Feature
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Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) reads to Max (Ben Schentzer), a Jew hiding in her home, in "The Book Thief," opening Nov. 15.

Markus Zusak’s acclaimed novel, The Book Thief, could neither compare with nor replace the first-person reality of The Diary of Anne Frank. The success of the 2006 book does demonstrate, though, that younger generations will identify with and embrace a contemporary, accessible introduction to the Holocaust.

The moving film adaptation of The Book Thief, opening Friday, Nov. 15 and appropriate for adolescents, tilts slightly more toward a coming-of-age story than a Holocaust film. There’s no question, though, that it’s the major Jewish-themed film of the year.

“I did want to avoid the Holocaust-movie approach because it’s been done so well at times,” director Brian Percival said in an interview in San Francisco the day after The Book Thief opened the Mill Valley Film Festival last month. “I was never going to make another Schindler’s List. This film was not about that. This film really was about the human triumph.”

The Book Thief recounts the saga of Leisel (played by Sophie Nélisse), a girl raised by foster parents in a German town during World War II. For a chunk of those harrowing years, the Hubermanns (a kindly Geoffrey Rush and a gruff Emily Watson) also hide a young Jewish man named Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), who nurtures Leisel’s budding imagination and nascent love for words and stories.

“Max is so important because he shows Liesel a different way to think about the world,” Percival explains. “There’s a beauty about his outlook that we find very engaging and Liesel finds engaging enough to invest in it and believe what he says. It’s because of Max’s inspiration that she sees the world in a different way and has the life that she does eventually have.”

Academy Award-winner Geoffrey Rush, who played the gifted pianist David Helfgott, the son of Holocaust survivors, in Shine, says he was deeply affected by the experience of shooting The Book Thief in Germany.

“Standing four or five months in Berlin and [surrounding] locations, you could feel on a daily basis the city itself coming to terms constantly with the depth of its history of the last century,” Rush says.

“It was an intriguing journey to the dark side of what human behavior can become,” he muses. “It’s something you have to constantly come up against in yourself, in your thinking. Germany under the rule of the National Socialists went in a particular direction and you could see how people had to make a choice: ‘Do I survive, do I protect my family, what do I do?’ That invites you in, whether it’s as a reader of the book or a viewer of the film, to go, ‘On what side of the fence would I fall if I was faced with those crucial dilemmas?’ ”

The Book Thief includes wrenching glimpses of Kristallnacht and the deportation of the Jews, but the most harrowing scene is a book burning in the town square capped by the German national anthem.

“We looked at other locations but it felt to me that there was an authenticity to shoot in Germany,” Percival says. “Filming with a predominantly German crew, I would gauge reactions as to what they felt, and that in a way would influence and, perhaps not color, but make me think about the way I approached certain scenes. There were tears of shame running down the crew members’ cheeks when we were filming [the book-burning scene]. They were being forced in some ways to confront what their forefathers had been responsible for, and that was quite a moving experience.”

The Book Thief marks Percival’s feature directing debut after a decade of excellent work for British television that included a splendid adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop and half a dozen episodes of the hit series Downton Abbey. He clearly has an appreciation for past events and how they reverberate through time. 

“Ordinary people can be corrupted into believing that the worst atrocities are the right thing to do,” Percival says. “That is the key, to learn that they should never, ever happen again. If a younger generation sees this film and realizes how a society can be manipulated into believing in something so wrong, then that’s not a bad thing.”

The Book Thief opens Friday, Nov. 15 at The Ritz Five in Philadelphia.

See a review of the inspiration for the film, Markus Zusak’s novel, here.

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