Veteran movie actor and young co-star find a way to lighten mood and cope with sometimes stark scenes.

Geoffrey Rush was standing in the town square of the quaint German village of Gerlitz, in the country's east on the Polish border. It was a bitterly cold night. Swastikas adorned the buildings.

Hundreds of German actors and extras, some wearing Nazi uniforms, were passionately singing parts of the German national anthem Das Lied der Deutschen that have been banned since the end of World War II.

Rush looked around and was shaken by the emotion of the moment for the Germans, who were transported back to dark days of their history.

"Just for the German crew, that was a highly emotional night," says Rush.


"The power of that logo as we would call it now with the vertical red flag, white circle and black swastika. There's no words. There's no motto. It's just there."

The town square scene is a key moment in Rush's new film, The Book Thief, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Australian author Markus Zusak.

"I keep saying to people, and they think I'm nuts, but I can tell underneath Markus' extraordinary writing I can feel an Australian wry energy," Rush says.

"I think the book is remarkable."

Rush (Hans Hubermann) and his querulous wife, Rosa (played by Emily Watson), take in 10-year-old Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) after her brother dies and her mother can't look after her.

Despite the sometimes stark and harrowing scenes in the film, Rush and Nelisse, just as their characters do in the book and film, forge a strong bond on the set.

Rush describes Nelisse, best known for her performance in the Oscar-nominated drama Monsieur Lazhar, as a "clown", but she disagrees.

"I think he's the clown," she laughed.

"There was a bit of pressure, but working with Geoffrey was fun. He would make magic tricks and when we weren't shooting he would make jokes all the time."

"I have been around the block - four decades of acting - and she moved the goalposts for me," says Rush, who was amazed at Nelisse's acting ability.

"Sophie has a natural gift. The best thing for me was she was the most sensational clown in between takes.

"A lot of people said, 'Did you have to give her acting advice?' It was the other way around."

Movie preview
What: The Book Thief, starring Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nelisse.

When: Opens at cinemas tomorrow.