Emily Watson delves into difficult history with ‘The Book Thief’

Emily Watson plays a grouchy mother in Nazi Germany in "The Book Thief." Credit: Getty Images
Emily Watson plays a grouchy mother in Nazi Germany in “The Book Thief.”
Credit: Getty Images

Since her astonishing, fearless screen debut in Lars Von Trier’s 1996 film “Breaking the Waves,” Emily Watson has been a reliable fixture of films, albeit ones usually not as intense. Having worked for Robert Altman (“Gosford Park”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“Punchdrunk Love”) and Steven Spielberg (“War Horse”), she finds herself turning to literature: Markus Zusak’s bestseller “The Book Thief.” Watson plays a grouchy mother, Rosa, living in Germany under Nazi rule. She and her slacker husband (Geoffrey Rush) adopt an orphan, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse).

Did you know about the book beforehand?

No, I didn’t. The screenplay was my introduction.

So what drew you to the script when it showed up?

I saw the title and thought, “Ooh that looks interesting. I won’t put it on the pile on my desk to read next week. I will read it right now.” And I sat down on my sofa and read it and wept and called my agent and asked, “Who do I talk to? What do I do to get involved?”

When you went back to the novel, what was different about your character?

In the book they actually have children of their own who have grown up and left the house. They have a very complex and distant relationship with them. But for our purposes they made then childless, which was great, because I could use that as one of the things that Rosa was really angry and disappointed by in her life. When she finds herself with a child, she is ultimately fulfilling a very deep-seated desire.

What about the backstory for your and Geoffrey Rush’s characters? They’re no longer warm to eachother, but there’s a love there.

My sense of it was that he had great hopes, he was young and artistic, he played the accordion, and it’s all very lovely and sexy. In the book it says [my character] was beautiful once, that she was softly spoken — if you can believe that one. [Ed. Her character in the film is very much not soft spoken.] I think they genuinely love eachother. But nothing has turned out as she wanted it to. She’s washing other people’s dirty clothes to earn money, and she’s the only one who ever does any work. She’s bitter.

She warms up over the film, but not by that much.

She doesn’t change her essential nature. She doesn’t find it possible to say to Liesel, “I love you.” She can’t express that. But her actions speak larger than her words. When the Jewish boy lands on her doorstep, she takes him in. That’s not what you’d necessarily expect from her.

This period is famously a time that most Germans from the period didn’t like to talk about. What kind of research did you do?

What was really great was we were filming in Berlin. Berlin is a very honest city. It wears its history on its sleeve. Everywhere you go there’s a museum or a memorial. We were so honored by the German crew, whose grandparents lived through this period and had to make the kind of choices that these characters made. It was very difficult. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette would be. Can you just ask somebody, “Was your granddad a Nazi?” But after awhile with some of the other actors we began asking them about their family. And they were very generous. One girl had grown up in East Berlin during the Stasi. She grew up believing her parents and grandparents had great integrity and were not Nazis and didn’t betray people to the Stasi. She then found out that wasn’t true. She was absolutely devastated by it.

This film is about a family who aren’t Nazis but can’t do anything about what’s going on, beyond hiding Jews.

Even if you didn’t buy into what was happening, you had to to navigate a very grotesque path through it. If you expressed dissent you were targeted.

When you were starting out in film, you were coming from theater. But you had an unusual first film, the Lars Von Trier film “Breaking the Waves.”

My first film was very unconventional in terms of the process. We did scenes over and over and over. He’d put a handheld camera in the middle of scenes and we just kept working. It felt like an endless rehearsal. It didn’t feel like structured filming process.

That must have made every film after a piece of cake?

[Chuckles] Yeah, I suppose so.

How feel about the film nowadays?

I feel very warm towards it, very emotional about it. My very dear friend Katrin Cartlidge, who died, is in it. It changed my life, really.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

Is #JusticeForAvaLynn a case of bullying?

On Saturday, the hashtag #JusticeForAvaLynn became one of the trending topics on Twitter. Users circulated the above photo of 5-year-old AvaLynn, posted by her mother…

International

Terrorism could spread to US and Europe in…

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah said terrorism would soon spread to Europe and the United States unless it is quickly dealt with in the Middle East,…

National

Ex-Bitcoin official to plead guilty to Silk Road…

Bitcoin entrepreneur Charlie Shrem has reached a plea deal to resolve U.S. charges that he engaged in a scheme to sell over $1 million of…

International

China's army changes tactics to prepare for war…

Chinese President Xi Jinping has said China will spur military innovation and called on the army to create a new strategy for "information warfare" as…

Gossip

Joan Rivers on life support: Report

TMZ reports that comedian Joan Rivers has been placed on life support, "completely reliant on machines to stay alive." Rivers has been hospitalized since she…

Movies

What's new on Netflix in September

September has a supernatural theme for Netflix. UFO "documentaries" and the survivalist reality series "Doomsday Preppers" are among the new series coming to the online…

Going Out

'Friends' coffeehouse Central Perk coming to NYC —…

"Friends" is coming back for a one-off special: "The One with the Free Coffee." Warner Bros. is bringing a pop-up replica of Central Perk, the…

Movies

Interview: 'As Above, So Below' directors: 5 ways…

The fraternal directors of the found footage horror "As Above, So Below" dish on the best ways to frighten the bejesus out of audiences.

NFL

3 things we learned in the Giants preseason…

The final score didn’t matter — a 16-13 win by the Giants — but it would’ve been nice to finally see Big Blue’s new-look offense get on track.

NFL

NFL Power Rankings: Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots, 49ers start…

NFL Power Rankings: Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots start at top

U.S. Soccer

5 facts about new England captain Wayne Rooney

Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney was named as the new England captain by coach Roy Hodgson on Thursday.

NFL

Jets vs. Eagles: 3 things to watch

A win on Thursday night at the Eagles would give the Jets a 3-1 record and just their second winning preseason under head coach Rex Ryan.

Wellbeing

This Week in Health: Lesbians, men most likely…

Lesbians, men most likely to achieve orgasm Location: U.S. Study subjects: 2,850 people Results: Whether you find it shocking or not, a new study reports that…

Wellbeing

VIDEO: Still not wearing sunscreen? You will after…

Sunscreen is possibly the most often repeated - and ignored - piece of skincare advice. But Thomas Leveritt took a different tactic. With a short…

Food

Twitter used to track down sources of food…

When Chicago health officials saw Twitter users complaining about local food poisoning episodes, they reached out on Twitter to those users and often ended up…

Style

Trend: White hot on the 2014 Emmy's red…

White was one of the big trends on the Emmy's red carpet.