When I was 15, like many sophomores in high school, I too, read The Diary of Anne Frank. I learned how a gregarious Anne lived in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, hiding with her family in a stuffy attic with two other families. In the most detailed account, from 14 June 1942 to 1 August 1944, I was captured by this narrative, and following the conclusion of our class reading, we attended a presentation, where we learned about the Holocaust firsthand, by meeting actual survivors! During this breathtaking event, Anne’s journal jumped off the pages! I hugged these men and women survivors, ran my fingers across the tattooed numbers on their forearms, and cried as I listened attentively to their stories.
Meeting Holocaust survivors when I was 15 during the 1980’s, left an indelible imprint on my heart. Now, fast forward to the 20th Century Fox screening of The Book Thief, based on the beloved bestselling novel by Markus Zusak. I was instantly suspended in time and charmed by Sophie Nélisse (Monsieur Lazhar), who plays Liesel the illiterate girl, who like Anne Frank learns the power of words. Tutored by her empathetic foster dad, Hans Hubermann (Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush), Liesel learns a plethora of vocabulary words, helping to determine her successful destiny. This father-daughter relationship is heartwarming.
Nélisse, the French-Canadian youth actress who beat out more than 1,000 other girls for the role of Liesel says the most inspiring books she’s ever read were Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine and Aesop Fable’s The Tortoise and the Hare.
Nélisse says, “Hana’s Suitcase really helped me just to know what sort of happened, even if I’m not a Jew in the story. I’m German, but it helped me a little bit. I learned the tortoise story when I was when I was like 2. I remember my mom being so proud. Saying, ‘She can read the book.’ But, I couldn’t. I was actually just memorizing the whole script, which for me I have a really good memory, so that’s the thing that really helps. I can learn the text in about five seconds. And it actually helped Geoffrey.”
Throughout this film, Liesel endures a number of challenges attacking her friendships and relationships. So, I asked Nélisse if she had a new perspective on friendships/relationships. She says, “Friends are really important and that you don’t have many good friends. You only have the good friends you can only count on your one hand, you know? And I would say that I have three, three good friends that I know that’ll never change. I think you just have friends that won’t change. And, I know those friends won’t change if I ever get famous, or, if I ever get super popular.
The Book Thief is one of the most important films of this decade. Director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) wasn’t initially familiar with the original book. However, once he started reading this fictitious dramatic script set in Nazi-riddled, Germany, Percival was so engaged he stayed up until 1:30 in the morning. Then, he emailed the producers his interest in directing the film writing, “You know, if I don’t do anything else in my life, I’ve got make this film!
Award-winning author Markus Zusak says he was inspired to write The Book Thief after hearing his parents share stories of the WWII Germany and Austria bombings taking place, while growing up as a child in Australia. He says, “A different version of me wrote that book. A piece of Europe came into our house, and my parents told their stories, and they’re amazing stories about cities that were burning, kids who were giving bread to prisoners on their way to camps and getting whipped for it and so on. I grew up hearing these stories over and over again.”
When asked about whether he worried about watering down the storylines for his Young Adult readers, he responded. “In the end, you try to look after the audience as much as you can, all the time. And, you’re doing as much as you can for the audience until you just get fed up. And then you just go, ‘You know what, I’m sick of a lot of you.’ It’s that whole thing of sometimes, you’re thinking about what everyone else is thinking and you’re getting mad at everybody else and they’re not thinking anything. You know, they’re not doing it. It is when you go, ‘all right, now if you want to be in this,’ You’ve got to come with me.’”
Percival adds, “There’s a whole generation now that knows so little about what went on in those times. Sophie didn’t until she started–you know, she was told certain things. I gave her a list of things to read and things to watch from that era. So, that she knew about it because I find that, particularly teenagers, you don’t really tell them what to do. It’s best that they find out for themselves.”
In fact, Percival says one of the most touching scenes took place when they used 450 extras to sing a pro-Nazi song that had been banned since 1946. The cast was taught the song scored by beautiful classical music. According to Percival, by the end of the scene, the predominately German, crew mostly born in the 70’s were in tears. Percival recalls, “My director of photography, Florian Ballhaus, was with me. There were tears rolling down their faces. You know, and that was because the shame they felt for what their forefathers had done.” Nevertheless, I agree with Percival in that this generation cannot pay the price for the errors of its forefathers.
Percival explains the movie’s message, “But if they’re drawn to a story about positivity and human nature and the human spirit, and watch that. And, take something away from it and learn something. Not just about what went on at that point, which I think is crucial that this generation knows as much as we all know so that we should never forget, but also if a whole bunch of kids pick up a book for the first time and then somehow that changes their life because they learned to see the world in a different way, then I sort of feel like I’ve done my job in bringing that to a wider audience!”
– That’s IT Mommy Penny
* This is not a sponsored post. We attended the press junket for review purposes.