Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story

November 23, 2013

the-book-thief-posterAs the much-anticipated Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire opens wide this weekend, allow us to direct you to a much different story about a girl suffering through a time of revolution under the iron rule of a totalitarian regime. The Book Thief struck a particularly personal chord with this writer, as it is based on a book by an author who has a very similar perspective on the German side of World War II.

Novelist Markus Zusak grew up in Australia where his German parents did not hold back telling him stories of their experiences as children growing up in small German villages as Adolf Hitler rose to power. The film adaptation by British director Brian Percival opened this Friday in South Florida in only two theaters (the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 and the AMC Aventura 24), after a steady role-out in limited release across the nation. The film features 13-year-old French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, who I first became aware of when I reviewed Philippe Falardeau’s terrific little drama Monsieur Lazhar. (Film Review: ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ tells powerful story by staying grounded).

I met all three of these artists last Friday during a face-to-face interview in a windowless conference room of the Ritz-Carlton Miami Beach. Nélisse chucked a paper airplane across the room when I walked in. “We’re making paper airplanes,” she said exuberantly, as she proceeded to fold another airplane, standing at the edge of a table. British director Percival, most famously known for Emmy-winning work directing many episodes of Downton Abbey, sat slouched on one side of the table. He offered a bright smile and a soft laugh. They were just coming to the end of a month-long tour of U.S. cities promoting their new film, which looks at World War II through the eyes of Liesel (Nélisse), who lives in a small village not far from Munich, as Germany heads into war.

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I placed a stack of handwritten journals held together by twine on the table. “He brought books,” said Nélisse. I introduce myself as Hans and shake hands with Percival. “His name is Hans, like in the movie,” she added, referring to Geoffrey Rush‘s character in the film, Liesel’s adoptive father. I explain that these old books contain stories by my father, a former German soldier conscripted to join the Wehrmacht when he was 16 years old. He wrote them with the help of his first wife, as he lay in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis after surviving the front lines to take Stalingrad (One day, I hope to write the book based on these [Note to any serious German translators out there!]).

My fathers journals

Zusak, author of The Book Thief, walks in a minute or so later, as I share the books, so they might flip through the pages, as we talk about the film. I mention the horrors my dad saw fighting the notoriously ruthless Russians. Percival and Zusak both know about the atrocities well, though they are too graphic to address in a book and film written from a child’s perspective for younger audiences.

Percival said he has heard all kinds of stories. “One couple in a bomb shelter actually remembered being in a bomb shelter during the war. It wasn’t just on the soundtrack. And they, and a number of people, said they fled from the Eastern Front in the final months of the war because they wanted to be captured or liberated, or however you want to look at it, by the Western forces rather than the Russians because the Russians were notorious for what they did, particularly to women and children. There were alarming accounts. A lot of German women dressed as men because they were just being dragged through the streets and raped. There was actually a black market lending out babies because apparently Russian soldiers wouldn’t attack a woman if she had a small child with her, so they used that as a deterrent.”

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Zusak, who is 38 years old, said he finished the book when he was 29. It has since gone on to leave a profound mark on the “New York Times” bestseller chart and won scores of awards. He says his mother would have been 8 years old when the war ended, and the Americans drove through her village. Even though these were the much more sympathetic Western forces, the fear of the Other remain profound. “She said a truck came past her once, and a soldier leaned down and her mom saw, and she was yelling out, ‘Be careful, be careful!’ And a soldier leaned down and gave her a massive block of chocolate, and she said she ran down the street yelling out, ‘They have chocolate! They have chocolate!’ I mean, you think about what happened to so many people, and so many Jewish people in particular … She was so lucky, being that young, for a start.

“Even my dad who had the Russians come into his town after the war, he saw a soldier come up, he stopped his truck and walked up to him, put his hand on his face and said, ‘kind’ [German for child]. He had tears in his eyes and got back in his truck and drove away. That’s what happens, you start seeing things from different points of view, and that’s how I grew up, hearing those things.”

The Book Thief offers a powerfully humanistic portrayal of ordinary people surviving through a dark time in German history. DF-09584_R_CROP_rgbIt’s something that speaks profoundly to this writer, who grew up with other kids teasing that my father was a Nazi, when he hated the Nazis. He was harassed by the Hitler Youth, when he turned down membership at 12 years of age and torn away from his family as a 16-year-old, forced to fight in some of the most costly battles of the war (Africa and Russia) or face a firing squad by his own people. As a child, I lent a reluctant ear to stories of close calls and horror as my father worked out the traumas he had survived until he was blessed from returning to battle with TB, something many also did not survive back then.

As time ran out from our brief, 15-minute interview, and we said our good-byes, Zusak read from one of the last pages of one of my father’s journals: “‘Many German soldiers, including many who fought mostly in the first line knew nothing about concentration camps and the Holocaust. We, and I, fought on the Russian front mainly to fight for our lives and the lives of our loved ones because that enemy was guided by evil forces, Bolshevism, and we were guided and had to endanger our lives for the Nazis, so we were not better than they, but at the same time I must note that not one unit in which I fought committed atrocities. They were mostly men who had to face war because there was no other choice.’ Pretty amazing.”

“That was my dad,” I said, feeling a tad choked up. “That was him.”

“You should be proud,” offered Nélisse.

* * *

Thursday afternoon, The “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist” published my article about the film, where the filmmakers shared their feelings about the war that inspired the book. Percival also gave me some material on Downton Abbey. Read it by jumping through the blog’s logo below:

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The following day, some of the flow of our conversation was captured in this article I wrote based on the interviews for fellow film critic Dan Hudak’s website, “Hudak On Hollywood.” Jump through the website’s logo below to read that:

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Finally, go see the film! Here’s the trailer:

Hans Morgenstern

The Book Thief is rated PG-13 and runs 127 minutes. It opened in South Florida Friday, Nov. 22, at the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 and the AMC Aventura 24. Meanwhile, in other parts of the U.S., it may already be playing at a theater near you; visit the film’s website and enter your zip code to find out here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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