Accomplished Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, who first burst into the international film scene playing mentally challenged Australian pianist David Helfgott in ‘Shine’ (1996), has never failed to put up strong, memorable performances in every other film role he has done.
That is not to say his films are all serious all the time. He does get to play a much-loved part in the ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ franchise as the devious Captain Hector Barbossa in all four of the blockbuster movies to date.
Now, in ‘The Book Thief’, Rush transports himself back on land to play Hans Hubermann, a foster father to an orphan girl named Liesel, sent to live with him and his wife in a German town in World War II. The girl soon finds refuge in reading and writing as she adjusts to a new life, in the story based on Markus Zusak’s young adult novels.
From the film’s set at Germany’s Studio Babelsberg, Rush discusses the role.
How aware were you of ‘The Book Thief’ before you signed on?
My agent in LA and Sydney alerted me that there was such a film. I had never heard of it, and I’m sort of surprised because the novel was published in 2006. I subsequently learned about the book from my 17-year-old. She hadn’t read it then, but all her friends said, “Oh, is your dad going to be in ‘The Book Thief’? I read it and that book changed my life.”
Now, for teenage girls, you would think they would say something like, “I don’t want to read about Nazi Germany.” But I believe it has been on the Amazon and New York Times bestseller list since. It’s just one of those phenomena.
It doesn’t fit the “young adult” stereotypes.
Exactly. On page one, a six-year-old boy dies in the freezing cold, fleeing with his Communist mother. Generally, that’s what you call a tough opening. And somehow, the voice of Death being the narrator, I find absolutely extraordinary.
In the book, the narration, and the perspective of the story, is all from Death. What’s the challenge of adapting that for the film?
The book plays out similar to what Laurence Sterne did with ‘Tristram Shandy’ (2005). He messes with the idea that you’re reading a book, with all of those chapter headings and little, almost Brechtian, slogans saying, “This is what’s going to come up in this story, but I’m jumping ahead of myself…”
I think film-wise, they’re doing more to try and get a picture of Germany in this period, the landscape of it, political and geographical. And then also presenting a lot more of Liesel’s point of view, investigating (questions such as) “Who are these people I’ve come to live with? Who’s that boy playing soccer?” There are things in the book, like when she is being taken to meet (the foster parents), where the interior monologue of Death was that this was the first time she had ever ridden in a car, and you get that really wonderful, essential sense of new experiences.
It’s an amazing protagonist role for a young girl to have in a film. And Sophie (Nelisse), you’re seeing great stuff up there on screen… she has so much subtle, beautiful, engaging stuff going on in her mind, and the camera loves her. She’s quite sparky off-camera, but on camera, she looks almost as if she’s a very cool existential philosopher and she’s taking life as it comes.
Geoffrey Rush (extreme right) in a scene from 'The Book Thief'
In your character Hans, Liesel finds a loving father figure, but he also puts the family at tremendous risk.
I think that Markus Zusak (author of ‘The Book Thief’) is a very empathetic novelist writing an outside perspective on a very simple, seemingly average working class German guy. Hans is one of the 10 per cent of the German population that was a little bit uncertain about the whole Hitler thing and the Nazi Party and the need to join.
My book is annotated with stuff because you can go inside the characters’ heads with it for scenes that are in the film. From Liesel’s point of view, it’s like she has entered a Grimm’s fairytale. It’s a very dark forest she is going into called young adulthood, and she meets a nice woodcutter, and a rather mean stepmother.
And then, the more the film goes on, hopefully we’re rounding out those characters so that they have bigger dimensions.
Does it help to be making the movie in Germany?
It helps a lot. For me, having just come from one of the hottest summers on record in Australia, to drive through Grunewald Forest between Charlottenburg and Babelsberg… I still get completely fascinated by large areas of snow, so to see that forest is fantastic.
The film is set further south. Molching is an invented town, but Markus has said it’s based specifically on where his grandparents came from. And the young boy in the film, Nico (Liersch) who plays Rudy, comes from that town, so we’re all listening to his accent very, very carefully.
Is it a fun process to get the accent down?
It’s good. There’s a big mixture of English, German, I’m from Australia, Sophie’s French-Canadian, and it’s good to hear a lot of different voices. But if we were shooting this in the Czech Republic, for example, we wouldn’t be hearing every day the third assistant director’s accent, which is German.
They all speak very good English of course, so we’re hearing what German sounds like via English, and you pick up the tune. It’s probably the most important thing.
It’s like with the accordion; you’re getting the bellows right. Because if they’re shooting from the chest up and you only see the top of the instrument, you still want to get a feeling that this is like Hans is breathing. It’s his solar plexus and his torso engaged.
Was it challenging to learn how to play the accordion?
I’m learning how to make it look as though I’m playing it quite well! The guy I’ve got is fantastic. He’s a Bandoneon player. But the Bandonika is much simpler, more rustic, and you only have three keys you can play in with eight notes on the base line and 30-something on the top. So I’ve been learning fingering and accuracy and all that sort of stuff.
I always love having a task on a film, because it tells you something about the character. I always remember working with Bob Anderson, who was a master swordsman, on ‘Pirates’. He played Darth Vader, and then he choreographed ‘Princess Bride’ and you realise you’re working with someone with great heritage and skill.
The first lesson he came in to supervise and give a master class, even though we were being taught routines by the sword masters, and he said, “First thing to remember – you’re a pirate. How old are you?”
At the time I was 52. He said, “If you’re a pirate and you’re 52, you’re still alive. Your fighting is going to be dirty. I don’t want to see any naval academy posturing from you.” And he said, “Remember, a sword fight is a dialogue between two blades. Trickling, defending, deceiving and losing your temper.”
So I’ve always thought of that with things like ‘Shine’, which was the piano, and that was a great thing to kind of have a crack at. The accordion has helped too, because the kids are at the heart of this film, so on my days off, it keeps me busy.
Is getting to learn – whether it’s history, or an instrument, or swordfighting – part of the joy of the job for you?
Absolutely. It also probably influences decision-making. When I read this character, I had a strong sense of wanting to have a crack at it. It was a period of history that I sort of knew a lot about but to be able to, via the book, go into the human scale of it is fascinating.