If you've ever wondered whether films can be considered historical documents, this story may interest you: When the Quebec actress Sophie Nélisse, now 13, landed the title role in the new drama The Book Thief, which is set in small-town Germany in 1939, she didn't know much about the Holocaust.
"Sadly, we hadn't learned anything about it in my school," she said during a joint interview in Toronto last week with Brian Percival, The Book Thief's director, and Geoffrey Rush, the Oscar-winning actor (Shine), who plays her character's foster father. Nélisse had read Hana's Suitcase, the true story of Hana Brady, who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, in Grade 6, she continues, "but that's all I knew before I got the part."
So Nélisse, a striking girl with full lips, who won a Genie Award last year for her role in Monsieur Lazhar, did some research: "I watched Schindler's List, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Pianist," she says. To learn what she needed for her Nazi-era movie, she watched other Nazi-era movies.
Percival – whose directing credits include several episodes of another historical drama, the British series Downton Abbey – didn't object to Nélisse's line of research. He's the one who suggested she watch the films. "When I was a kid," he says, "if I had to learn something, when somebody gave me a great pile of books it was daunting. Given the amount of information out there, it's easier if it's been distilled. It was important that Sophie had historical context, and it's easier to whet someone's appetite with a two-hour movie than a 500-page book. And since those films tell the story from different viewpoints, they gave her a sense of perspective."
Decry it if you will, but a lot of people learn history while eating popcorn in a movie seat. Last year, many Canadians objected to Argo, Ben Affleck's take on the Iranian hostage crisis, but that didn't stop it from winning the best-picture Oscar last February – trumping, among others, Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's film based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's massive historical tome. This fall people are discovering Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir via the film 12 Years a Slave, learning how the U.S. Navy thwarted Somali pirates by watching Captain Phillips, and adding to their knowledge of the AIDS pandemic via Dallas Buyers Club. The words "based on a true story" matter little if the images are powerful enough.
Luckily for audiences (and history teachers), the best directors work to ensure their stories are as true as possible. One of the ships in Captain Phillips, for example, was part of the actual mission that rescued Phillips, and members of the navy who were there served as consultants. Though The Book Thief is fiction, its production designer, art directors and set decorator did extensive research, and filled every frame with historically accurate crockery, linens, wallpaper and light fixtures.
"The costume designer, Anna Sheppard, had already done Schindler's List, which was about the Nazi camps, and Inglourious Basterds, which was a sort of hyperrealist take on the war," Rush says. "But she found the street-level domesticity in The Book Thief really intriguing."
The film, based on Markus Zusak's source novel, tells the story of Liesel (Nélisse), who falls in love with reading after being sent to live with foster parents Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) in the fictional town of Molching, near Munich, around the beginning of the Second World War. Hans and Rosa are ordinary Germans swept up in extraordinary events: They're not members of the Nazi party, and they harbour a Jewish refugee in their cellar, but they're not above hanging the Nazi flag from their window to appease their neighbours, or attending a book burning in the village square.
Nélisse carries the film on her impossibly narrow shoulders. Before casting her, Percival auditioned 1,000 girls on four continents. But after seeing Monsieur Lazhar, and watching a tape Nélisse sent in, he thought, "'There's something special about this kid,'" he recalls. "She had spirit, she was feisty, yet she could play vulnerable as well."
Though Nélisse claims she was "stressed at the beginning," worrying that she wouldn't hold her own with her famous co-stars, after two days, "I didn't feel any pressure at all," she says. "It's as if they were my parents." During our interview, she showed no sign of stress. When she was answering questions, she was strikingly composed; during the men's answers, she texted away on a sparkly pink phone.
The film's commitment to accuracy resulted in some unexpected chills for the cast and crew. On location in a town near the Polish border, more and more buildings sported swastika banners as filming progressed. "One day a photo of Hitler appears in the cake-shop window, and you think, 'That's how it worked,'" Rush says. For a scene in which angelic-looking students at Liesel's school sing a Nazi propaganda song, researchers had to dig to find the lyrics, because the song, Rush says, has been banned.
The hardest night, all agree, was the book-burning scene. It was freezing cold. As the well-known German actor Rainer Bock (The White Ribbon) barked the order for the books to be ignited, a crowd of extras began singing Deutschland Uber Alles (again, the movie people had
to teach them the original lyrics). "It was particularly difficult for the Germans," Rush says. "Hearing that music, seeing such a faithful recreation of a horrific period in their country's history. Florian Ballhaus [the director of photography, who also shot, among other films, The Devil Wears Prada], who's lived a long time in the States, was in tears."
Scenes like that were what prompted Percival to do the film. "The script had such a strong message about humanity and spirit," he says. "It looked at normal people and how they deal with history as it rolls over them. I grew up in a small community in Liverpool, in England. Working-class, my father worked on the docks. It was very like Himmel Strasse [where Hans and Rosa live]. Two up/two down terraced house with an outside toilet. So it was that sense of community that I recognized right away when I read the script. It doesn't set out to be a Holocaust story, but I love the fact that it may bring an awareness for younger generations about what went on. The more people learn about the mistakes that were made, the better the lesson for the future."
It seems to be working. Nélisse's reaction to watching her research films was, "'This is impossible, how could people do this?'" she recalls. "I felt so bad. It gave me the feeling that I had to do this movie. Because then all my friends will see it, and they will know a bit more about it."