Taking its title from Psalm 91, new film “The Bird Catcher” focuses on a teenage Jewish girl named Esther and the choices she must make after her peaceful life in the northern port city of Trondheim is upended with the Nazi persecutions of late 1942.
“The Bird Catcher” is inspired by actual events and tells the story of Jews in Nazi-occupied Norway during World War II. But from collaboration to resistance, the general population’s reaction to the Nazi conquerors was not always clear-cut.
The film made its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 1.
“After each screening we were approached by individuals with tears streaming down their faces, sharing their family Holocaust stories and saying how moved they were by our film; from the beauty of the cinematography to the performances of our cast, direction, score and most importantly the story of [a] piece of WWII history about the Norwegian occupation,” producer Lisa Black wrote in an email.
After losing her parents, Esther forges a new identity as a non-Jewish boy, Ola, and leads a new life on a remote farm with the dysfunctional Dalgaard family — husband and wife Johann and Anna, their son Aksel, and Johann’s brother Fred. Only Aksel knows her secret when she enters the household — a secret that is threatened with the looming presence of the Nazis, personified by their commander Herman.
“The Bird Catcher” was shot in the haunting natural beauty of northern Norway, with cast members even getting a snowmobile ride. It is only the second English-language feature film made through the National Tax Incentive of the Norwegian Film Institute.
Screenwriter Trond Morten K. Venaasen based the script on real-life history. In a statement, he described the documentary “Shoah” by Claude Lanzmann (who died last year) as crucial to the plot. Notably, “Shoah”’s story of Abraham Bomba, a barber at Treblinka who cut the hair of inmates before they went to the gas chambers. This led him to make Esther’s father, Hans, a barber himself.
Venaasen also learned about the plight of Norwegian Jews during the Holocaust, during which his best friend lost her paternal grandmother. He also interviewed a woman who discussed the escape route she took out of Norway. She died on January 31 at age 104.
Filmmakers and cast members further researched the narrative of Norwegian Jews in the Holocaust by visiting the Trondheim Synagogue, the northernmost synagogue in Europe, and its museum, whose founder’s granddaughter served as a consultant to the film.
British director Ross Clarke assembled a cast of top international talent, including Danish actress Sarah-Sofie Boussnina in the role of Esther. Boussnina’s recent films include last year’s “Mary Magdalene” with Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara; and “Knightfall,” a 2017 historical drama about the Knights Templars. In a Skype interview, Clarke called Boussnina “key to the film,” adding, “Her part is so crucial.”
Around her is an ensemble of celebrated veterans and promising newcomers. German actor August Diehl (Herman) starred in the Academy Award-winning Austrian film “The Counterfeiters” and also appeared in a much different Holocaust film, Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.”
Danish actor Jakob Cedergren plays the collaborationist Johann — a departure from his role in “Across the Waters,” in which he portrayed N.B. Lund Ferdinansen, a rescuer of Danish Jewish Holocaust refugees. Cedergren also stars in “The Guilty,” which narrowly missed an Oscar nomination this year. The character Anna is played by Finnish actress Laura Birn and Arthur Hakalahti makes his debut lead performance as Aksel.
Norway’s downward spiral
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum website describes how the situation of Norwegian Jews steadily worsened after the Nazi invasion of 1940. All Jewish males in Trondheim were arrested in October 1942, with other persecutions occurring in Oslo.
Over 760 Jews were deported from Norway between 1940 and 1945, with only 25 returning. Some Jews went into hiding in Norway, while over half of the prewar Jewish population — about 900 — survived through escape to neutral Sweden.
Some Norwegians spoke out or intervened on behalf of Jews, from members of the police and clergy to the underground. But collaborationist leader Vidkun Quisling’s government actively participated in the arrest and deportation of Norway’s Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Learning about his country’s Holocaust narrative, Venaasen said, “I was trying to understand why that happened in Norway, why there were people also in Norway, not just the Nazis, who helped deport Jews, why there were also ‘good Norwegians’ — police, state police, ordinary people — who had political reasons to [oppose] the Jewish population. I started to build the story around that.”
“For me, it’s a universal story as well as a Jewish story, what happens to someone in war, facing forced migration and racism, who is not allowed to retain their identity,” Clarke said.
When the film begins, Esther seems secure — a happy 14-year-old girl who hopes to land the part of Lady Macbeth in a school play. She practices her lines with her pet parakeet as the audience. Movie posters on her wall reflect her dream of Hollywood stardom.
Yet real-life terror intrudes. The Nazis arrest her father, Hans, and soon afterward, Esther and her mother, Rebecca, join fellow Jews on an escape attempt into the countryside. A collaborator betrays them to the Nazis. Esther, who has hidden in a crate, is the sole survivor.
Braving snowy woods and icy waters, Esther makes her way to a farm, where she unexpectedly finds a friend, Aksel, a boy about her age with cerebral palsy. Shunned by his father and uncle because of his disability, Aksel finds common ground with someone he was taught to hate.
“The only thing Aksel knows about Jews is what his father told him,” Hakalahti said. “For him and his father, a Jew is not a person. That’s what Aksel thinks about Jews to begin with. But when he gets to know Esther, he kind of sees something of himself in her because she is not accepted either for who she is.”
Esther realizes that other members of Aksel’s family — his collaborationist father or his uncouth uncle — might not be so welcoming. She returns to the forest — but, in a pivotal scene, resolves to shed her identity and go back to the farm in a new guise.
As her father once cut the hair of others, she now trims her own hair, and burns her Jewish identity card and a family photo. She creates a new identity: “Ola,” a boy whose parents were killed by the British.
“It’s what she had to do, do that or die,” Clarke said. “She chose to survive.”
“Ola” successfully passes herself off to the Nazis, who bring her to the farm. The British-hating Johann readily agrees to take in someone who can help with chores while he pursues his interest in collaborationist politics, partly to keep the Nazis away from his farm.
A film full of sound and fury
“Ola” learns that she can help Johann quite well. A romance develops between her and Aksel, while Johann begins to regard “Ola” as a surrogate son. In grimly ironic scenes, he proudly awards “Ola” a uniform of the ruling collaborationist Nasjonal Samling party with its fascist insignia, and gives a lesson in shooting wild fowl.
“Johann is the bird catcher,” Venaasen said. “He catches Esther … He kind of traps her somehow, needs her more than anyone else. Ola becomes his future.”
In “Macbeth,” which Esther once studied so assiduously in happier times, Shakespeare characterized life as “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” After the sound and fury of “The Bird Catcher”’s climax, there is sadness and despair — but also hope. And, the film argues, Esther’s story does have a significance.
“It’s not just a story about WWII, it’s a universal story, even more relevant today than any time the last 50 years,” Clarke said. “Around the world, some of the conditions [of WWII] are coming alive, unfortunately. It’s worth revisiting those stories. I hope people take something away.”