The historical drama "The Book Thief," based on Markus Zusak's novel about a young girl who develops a passion for reading against the backdrop of World War II, has been called out by some critics for being too safe and sanitized in its depiction of the horrors of Nazi Germany.
In a review for The Times, for example, Robert Abele wrote that the film puts "an odd emphasis on uplift over unease. And, most peculiarly, it's a tale narrated by Death … that wants tears shed for tragedies that befall its big-hearted non-Jewish German characters, but skirts explicitly addressing the fate of that generation's Jews."
Speaking at the Envelope Screening Series, actor Geoffrey Rush defended the film's point of view, which focuses on the courage of a few ordinary people rather than the enormity of the war and the Holocaust.
"I think there was a bravery and an ethical honesty in those people that did cross the line to say, 'I will actually put my life in peril for your life,'" Rush said. "And I think that's the essence of the stories that Markus wrote about in the book."
Rush continued: "I think that level of empathy is a fascinating one because we have seen some extraordinary films — if there's a genre, whether it's 'Life Is Beautiful' or 'Schindler's List' or 'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,' there have been a number of films about the big picture. But I'm hoping this story invites people to [think], 'It could be my home.'"
Rush also said the film has resonated with Holocaust survivors. "I had a phenomenal experience in some of the promotional gigs that we did for the film," he recalled.
"We had a screening at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and I met some guys who were in their late 80s, and this man came up to me after the screening — in the wake of some rather cynical mainstream press, having kind of dismissed the film as 'Holocaust kitsch.' And he came up and said, 'I was 14 and I was protected by a man so like your character, in a farm house, hiding in his barn for two to three years on the outskirts of Nazi-occupied Paris. And I owe that man my life.' He said, 'I found the film deeply moving, authentic, strong.' And telling a story about not the big picture — we were never intending that. It was always going to be from a domestic viewpoint."
For more from Rush on "The Book Thief," watch the full video above, and check back for daily highlights.
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