‘Book Thief’ stars revel in captivating World War II tale 

Director Brian Percival wasn’t too daunted in making a movie based on Markus Zusak’s award-winning, best-selling 2005 novel, “The Book Thief.”

“It’s impossible to please everybody. But the more people who see the film, the more people will read the book,” says Percival, the “Downton Abbey” director who took on telling the World War II-era tale of a young girl who, while living with a foster family in Nazi Germany, is transformed by the power of words.

Sophie Nelisse, 13, who plays protagonist Liesel (and read the book after she shot the film) identified with the character in some ways: “She cares a lot about other people, and won’t give up,” said Nelisse during a visit to The City with her director and co-star Geoffrey Rush to promote the movie, which opens Friday.

But Nelisse admits it would be hard for her to keep the kinds of secrets that Liesel keeps, such as the fact that her adopted family was hiding a Jew.

Rush was enthralled with the book, pleased it was by an Australian author, who gave it whimsy and a slightly subversive quality, not unlike “Tristram Shandy” or the Lemony Snicket books.

As Liesel’s endearing, accordion-playing papa Hans (to Emily Watson’s more severe mama), Rush says his role was representative of the eccentric characters he has played through the years, a fellow with a natural simplicity, but who also was quite a radical, with an appearance to match.

“I was as unadorned as possible. Hans looked like an owl, with eyebrows like haystacks.”

Nelisse (a Canadian actress who appeared in “Monsieur Lazhar”) had to cry onscreen for the first time for the role. “Once you think of sad things, it’s easy,” she says. “I was crying all day.” The realistic scenery, a set modeled after a town near Dachau (created specifically “to be blown up,” Percival says) also helped Nelisse capture her character’s devastation.

In reality, though, filming “The Book Thief” went smoothly.

Nelisse, Percival and Rush all agree that the most difficult thing about the process was the frigid weather in Germany in February: “It was the coldest winter in Berlin in 67 years,” Percival says.

IF YOU GO

The Book Thief

Starring: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch Written by Michael Petroni Directed by Brian Percival Rated PG-13 Running time 2 hours, 11 minutes

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Leslie Katz

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Monday, Sep 15, 2014

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