ORLANDO, Fla. — “The Book Thief,” the new World War II / Holocaust film based on the Markus Zusak novel, isn’t a children’s movie, even though it is about children during the war.
“It’s a PG-13, and I think that’s about right,” said director Brian Percival. “Some younger children have seen it, though maybe they didn’t understand it as an adult would. But 13 and upwards seems the right age to see it.”
And it’s not really “a Holocaust movie, if that’s even a genre,” says Percival. “I didn’t set out to make a film for a cultural elite. I set out to make a populist film. ... The audience that would see such a genre film already know all about the Holocaust.”
What the film turns out to be is an earnest effort to bring back both the context and the consequences of growing up in Nazi Germany, for children who know little of this history and for adults who may have tuned it out or forgotten it.
At its center is Liesel, the illiterate young girl whose communist parents send her to live with strangers (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) in 1930 Germany. Liesel (French Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse) learns to read and to love books just as a regime that burns books and murders millions solidifies its hold over Germany.
“In Liesel’s day, books had the symbolism of words,” author Markus Zusak says. “Hitler never fired a gun, but he destroyed whole cultures with words and propaganda and words of hate.
“In this story, you’ve got a girl who is stealing the words back, and writing her own story.”
Books have both literal and symbolic in the movie, as Liesel’s first act of defiance against the Nazis and the tide of public opinion is to rescue a book from the ashes of a bonfire, a bonfire she attended with everyone else in her town.
“It was weird being there, seeing all the swastika flags, seeing the extras, who had a kind of shame in their eyes at what they were seeing,” says Nelisse, who won Canada’s Genie Award for her performance in the drama “Monsieur Lazhar” a couple of years back. “It felt awful throwing a book into a fire, and thinking that there were people who agreed with that, hearing speeches about why books should be burned. It is hard for me to imagine that time.”
Getting “into character” for the film had one shortcut for her — a Hitler Youth uniform.
“We’re making this movie, and we’re having so much fun doing it,” Nelisse remembers. “My character is sweet and kind of feisty. And then I have to put that uniform on. I’m acting, I know. But wearing that, with Nazi swastikas on it? It felt like I was agreeing with what was happening, with those people.”
Percival, the “Downton Abbey” director with a yen for period perfectionism, says “we saw photographs of 3-year-olds in Hitler Youth uniforms. That struck me of the ultimate expression of how innocence can be corrupted.
“You see Liesel and Rudy (Liesel’s best friend) and they’re just a couple of cute kids,” he said. “They don’t understand what this is all about.
“We see an image of a child in a Hitler Youth uniform, it really gives us a conflict in our minds. We know one is intrinsically good and the other is intrinsically evil. That contrast I tried to bring out as many times as possible.”
The most telling contrast for Percival was a Hitler Youth choir scene.
“To a non-German speaker, that song, anthem, sounds lovely, angelic almost. Then you read the subtitles and realize how anti-Semitic and how hateful it is. The reality of what that song signals, Kristallnacht, genocide, a country being led to war, is what comes next.”