In his time, Geoffrey Rush has played troubled pianist David Helfgott, Les Misérables‘ obsessive police inspector Javert, the Marquis de Sade, Leon Trotsky, Peter Sellers and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s vicious buccaneer Barbossa, among other vivid characters. In contrast, the most remarkable trait of Hans Hubermann, the character he plays in the Nazi era drama The Book Thief is that he is so very unremarkable, a quality Rush finds very attractive.
“I loved the matter-of-fact ordinariness of Hans Hubermann, just for me as an actor in terms of things I’ve played before,” he says during a recent visit to San Francisco. “The needle’s probably gone to the extreme end of the spectrum of eccentric or colorful, bold characterizations. It appealed to me to play this man who seemingly on the outside was ordinary to the point of actually being quite boring.
“He didn’t have big heroic attributes on any level or any ticks or qualities that might have made him an eccentric or unusual personality. He’s a quiet guy that got on with his life, but you realize underneath he’s politically almost a radical.”
In Brian Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s bestselling novel, Hans is a patient, good-natured man who bears his shrewish wife Rosa’s (Emily Watson) incessant carping with humor and grace and who becomes both father and teacher to Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), the foster child the family shelters. In their small German town in the months leading up to World War II, he stands out because of his stance against the Nazis. He refuses to join the Nazi Party or distance himself from the Jews that remain in town. A painter be trade, he is mostly unemployed, except for the occasional odd job.
“Hans isn’t a lazy man,” says Percival. “He doesn’t work, because he can’t work. Morally, he doesn’t want to join the Party. Anybody that didn’t join the Party at that time didn’t get work. Here’s a man who would love to be out working and painting every day, but he’s not allowed to be because of the system.”
“When I first read the novel and the screenplay, I could identify with this by thinking of a small outback town in New South Wales or somewhere in the Midwest,” adds Rush. “It’s a community, a working-class community where these events are taking place very slowly and very slyly around them. Suddenly, it’s a dividing line of are you going to join the Party or not?”
The lens that The Book Thief applies to everyday people was one of the things that appealed to Rush. This is not Schindler’s List or Defiance. There are no grand heroics in this drama, only small gestures in a town that maintains the party line as Germany rushes toward world war and holocaust.
“We are looking at, I suppose, for an English-speaking community – English, Americans, Australians or whatever – it’s a story about our former enemy on a very kind of street-level, human scale of a microcosm of what happens in average daily life to this community and their perception of the war that they were fighting,” Rush says. “They’re thinking, ‘We’ll win this and it’s great. Hitler’s reviving the economy and the country. We’ll come out of the loss and devastation of the First World War.’
“It’s not sensationalized and not a biased account of the German perspective; it’s a very honest look at the ordinariness of these people and the age of terror and anxiety that surrounded their lives for a very long period.” – Pam Grady