‘Book Thief’ a story of pure beauty, pure destruction

Markus Zusak still remembers how his mother, a German Lutheran immigrant to Australia, vividly described the day she saw the Jews being marched to Dachau in her hamlet near Munich. 

“There was an old, emaciated man who couldn’t keep up with the others, and a teenage boy ran up and gave him a piece of bread,” said Zusak, a youthful 38, during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel. “And the old man, who could barely walk, fell to his hands and knees and grabbed the boy’s ankles and just cried into his feet.  But then a soldier came, ripped the bread away, and whipped the man and the boy.

“It’s a story that’s always stayed with me, because it shows the pure beauty possible in humanity on the one hand and the pure destruction on the other,” Zusak explained.  “You bring those two opposites together, and it encompasses all of us.”

This tale and others inspired Zusak to write his best-selling novel, “The Book Thief,” which has now been adapted into a film by the British director Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”), opening in Los Angeles on Nov. 8.  In the movie, as in the book, Death narrates the tale of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), who loses her brother and then her mother, who had been targeted as a communist and so the girl goes to live with foster parents Hans Hubermann (Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush) and his prickly wife, Rosa (Emily Watson), in a town on the outskirts of Munich.

Liesel develops a penchant for stealing books, even from the embers of a Nazi book burning, perhaps to make up for all that has been taken from her.  At first happy to don her Hitler Youth uniform, she becomes disillusioned with the Reich and commits acts of insurgence large and small as she bonds with the colorful characters of the town, among them  her best friend, Rudy, who is obsessed with the black athlete Jesse Owens and tormented by the sadistic leader of his Hitler Youth group; and Max (Ben Schnetzer), a sickly Jew for whom the Hubermanns risk their lives by hiding him in their basement.

During the same interview at the Four Seasons, the soft-spoken, thoughtful Percival, 51, recounted how the voyage from novel to film began when the movie’s producer, Karen Rosenfelt, chanced to read about the book in a copy of The Wall Street Journal she picked up by chance at a coffeehouse. Screenwriter Michael Petroni whittled down the 539-page novel into a 100-page screenplay, which riveted Percival upon his first reading.

Percival, too, had grown up with stories of World War II; his father served in the Royal Air Force and his mother worked in the wartime factories in Liverpool, which was heavily bombed by the Nazis.  

He arrived to his meeting with the film’s producers with a series of images that illustrated his visual way into the film: “Everything from a frozen wasteland to Nazi propaganda,” he said. “One of the things that really struck me were the Hitler Youth posters that, from a child’s point of view, seemed to promise this ideal life; that’s how, through words and images, Hitler managed to corrupt a generation.”

Both Percival and Zusak were well aware that depicting “good” Germans during the Holocaust might be controversial in some quarters, but, Percival insisted, “The most likely way of stopping this from ever happening again is if people become aware of what can happen to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.” He cited a scene in which Nazis cart a Jewish merchant off to Dachau: “Their attitude is that it’s the right thing to do, and yet they’re the same characters that in previous scenes we felt compassion for, because they were scared that the bombs might fall. What I set out to do whenever I could was to challenge this perception of what ‘ordinary’ people do.”

On the set, Watson constantly wondered whether she would have had the courage to harbor Jews during the Holocaust: “I really hope that I would,” she said. “But at the same time, I have two young children, and if it meant that they would be killed as a result of my action, it’s a really hard call.”

One of the challenges of adapting “The Book Thief” for the screen was how to portray the character of Death, who is both weary and witty in the book; Percival’s solution was to limit the character’s narration so as not to pull viewers out of the story, and to use aerial shots to “subliminally remind viewers of his presence,” he said.

Rush noted that Percival had the actors rehearse on the sets “because he wanted as much veracity as possible. In the scenes in the kitchen, we were able to talk about how we lived in the space. And in the bedroom, I said to Emily, ‘What side of the bed do you sleep on, and where do you keep your teeth in the glass?’ ”

Percival also worked closely with the same historian who assisted Steven Spielberg on “Schindler’s List,” notably for the book-burning sequence that is at the heart of the movie. “What would happen is that the Hitler Youth toured the neighborhood to take away any of the books they felt were inappropriate because the citizens themselves were terrified to bring forbidden literature to the burnings,” he said.

The filmmakers had to obtain permission to hang Nazi banners on the set in Gorlitz, as such imagery is banned in public in Germany, and Percival found filming the book-burning sequence to be “chilling.”  

“Our almost entirely German extras and crew — including our director of photography, Florian Ballhaus — had tears rolling down their cheeks,” he recalled. “You could see the sort of guilt on the faces of these people who felt such great sorrow for what their forefathers did, and still feel responsible for it.”