Geoffrey Rush. Picture: Supplied

No Australian actor has so consistently broken the national stereotype and played intelligent, worldly men - not twee academic types or perverse geniuses but resourceful, cultivated strivers - as Geoffrey Rush.

After winning the Oscar for his dead-on impersonation of troubled musical prodigy David Helfgott in Shine (1996) Rush went on to incarnate a series of major historic figures: Virgin Queen's spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham in Elizabeth, Leon Trotsky in Frida and the Marquis de Sade in Quills.

He found a whole new audience as the wicked, witty pirate Hector Barbossa in The Pirates of the Caribbean series and affirmed his ability as a comedian and a mimic in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

And, of course, he gave us the brightest, most articulate Australian character in memory in Lionel Logue, the speech teacher who taught the stuttering George VI to take control of his wayward tongue and deliver stirring wartime speeches.

However, in this latest film, the highly anticipated adaptation of Markus Zusak's Third Reich-set mega bestseller The Book Thief, Rush takes on one of the rare ordinary men in a career largely dedicated to playing the great and the grand - a housepainter and the foster father of the novel's larcenous, literature-loving heroine Liesel Meminger (played by Sophie Nelisse of Monsieur Lazhar fame).

When Liesel arrives in the small fictional town of Molching (near Munich) she is immediately taken under the wing of Rush's Hans Hubermann, who teaches her to read and write even though books have not paid a big part in his life (their first shared text is The Gravedigger's Handbook).

While Hans is not particularly well educated or cultivated - playing the accordion is the only glimpse we get of a refined soul - this WWI survivor nonetheless delivers Liesel valuable life lessons, not the least being respect for the young Jewish man the family hides in their basement.

Rush says that when he first read the screenplay and later Zusak's book he received a strong feeling of his late stepfather who came into his life in his early teens (roughly the same age AT which Liesel comes into the care of Hans and his blustery, foul-mouthed wife Rosa).

"He was a seasonal worker, a shearer in Queensland who would be away for long periods and then be home for months. So he kind of broke the rule of what males did within a family," explains Rush over the phone from Melbourne, the long-time base from which he has conducted his flourishing international career.

"He was a very left-wing down-to-earth working-class guy but extremely well read. He would listen to radio plays while working in the shed. When I came to work in the theatre it amazed me the level of conversations we would have. He was astonishingly knowledgeable without being so-called educated," Rush recalls.

"I think Hans' greatest gift is that he has an acute emotional intelligence which leads to an almost immediate rapport with Liesel. Hans can read in Liesel that she's been through very difficult times and he tries to draw her out, which he does by using his accordion."

Rush's other way into the character of Hans Hubermann was acknowledging the change in point of view from the novel, which famously is narrated by Death (just the kind of imperious tragi-comic role Rush himself might have played if the filmmakers went down that path).

"Having the story narrated by Death is a fantastic, brilliantly executed literary device but would not worked in a film. So the writer Michael Petroni shifted the point of view to Liesel, which matches the experience of Markus (Zusak) who was inspired to write The Book Thief after hearing stories about growing up in Germany during the war from his mother and father," Rush explains.

"When we first meet Liesel she is fleeing the nazis with her communist mother. Her six-year-old brother dies on the train and they bury him next to the railway tracks. So we are seeing the rise of National Socialism and the horrors of WWII from her point of view. So Emily Watson (who plays Rosa Hubermann) and I decided that our starting point would be from how she sees it - from view of her illiteracy and grief and anxiety about the future. It would be like a Grimms' fairytale and Rosa would be the wicked stepmother and I would be the happy woodcutter.

"And we knew that the inner lives of these characters would emerge as the story unfolds and the war corrodes their lives."

As original and as vivid and moving is Zusak's story about a young girl's growing awareness of the power of words and stories as a symbolic counter to the perverse use of language of Adolf Hitler (she is stealing back German from those who poisoned it), we are once again back in to the terrain of the WWII movie. Can there be any more fresh soil to till in this most worked-over period of history?

Rush believes that WWII and particularly the Holocaust still hangs over the early 21st century.

"This was probably the lowest point reached by humankind," Rush says. "Of course, journalists and bloggers will always dismiss a film such as The Book Thief as just another entry in the Holocaust genre, joining Schindler's List and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and The Piano.

"But the great gift that Markus has given us is to take these horrific events back to square one, to take a prepubescent's perception of these events as she emerges from that cocoon of grief and flourishes into a young woman and ask 'How do you take all of this on board?'"

Rush also says that director Brian Perceval (best known for his work on Downton Abbey) and the rest of the cast also wanted to avoid the stereotype of the evil patrician German so beloved of WWII movies, even those made by hipster auteurs such as Quentin Tarantino.

"Many of the friends of Hans, Rosa and Liesel - ordinary Germans who, under different circumstances, would be no different from you and me - were looking for a messiah to lead them out of the poverty and humiliation that followed defeat in World War I."

This more complex version of Germany during WWII was undoubtedly helped by the fact that The Book Thief was shot in Berlin at the once-divided city's famous Babelsberg Studio, where The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Metropolis and The Blue Angel were shot during the heady years of the Weimar Republic.

"They could have saved money and shot this in Czechoslovakia or Hungary or Romania or one of a number of countries with lower-wage economies. But to shoot with a majority German crew and on that back lot with a town that had been used in films such as The Pianist brings a texture you struggle to achieve in pan-European productions," says Rush.

"But there is also amongst the young a tremendous vitality. Germany has been battered for most of the 20th century - two World Wars, the Depression, the Final Solution, The Wall, the Stasi - but there is an energy and a drive in those separated from such horrors by several generations. The sense of self-repair is palpable."

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Compare & Save

More from The West