The Bird Catcher, streaming on Amazon Prime, is a 2019 drama that depicts some of the lesser-known stories of Norwegian Jews through the eyes of a young girl trying to survive during World War II.
The film begins in 1942 inside the bustling city of Trondheim, Norway. The entire country had come under Nazi occupation two years earlier. Slowly reports come out that Norway’s Jews are being taken from their homes by the Nazis and shipped to unknown destinations. Initially these rumors are all but ignored by the city residents.
Esther, (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina) a secure, motivated teenager is captivated by Hollywood and dreams of becoming a movie star. Her parents like many other Jews ignore the ominous rumors, so Esther continues to focus on landing the part of Lady Macbeth in the school play. She practices her lines in front of her pet parakeet as the audience.
Unfortunately, the reality of war surrounds Esther as she finds herself caught in the middle of the horrors and experiences of the tightening Nazi takeover of her beloved country.
Distressed, upset, and scared she looks on as her beloved father and mother are brutally beaten and trucked off by the Nazis; Esther is clever enough to escape capture by hiding herself in a crate hidden in the back of a commercial truck.
Esther escapes into the wintery forest. As she makes her way through the woods, you see her plunging face-first through an icy frozen river. She’s desperate, starving and freezing cold but she must keep moving. You see her determination to survive.
Months pass before Esther finally stumbles onto an occupied farm where she unexpectedly discovers a boy of similar age.
Will he turn her in….?
“The only thing the boy knows about Jews is what his father has taught him – that a Jew is not a person”. But when he gets to know Esther and she confides in him, that she is Jewish, Aksel (Arthur Hakalahti) sees something of himself in Esther because like her, he is not accepted for who he is.”
Aksel is shunned by his father and uncle primarily because of his disability. He suffers from Cerebral Palsy and his disease prevents him from helping his father with the chores of the farm. Keeping Esther’s secret, he befriends her, finding common ground with her as they develop a growing friendship.
Aksel takes a significant personal risk by hiding Esther in the barn attic and away from his dysfunctional family — father and mother Johann and Anna, and Johann’s lazy, drunken brother Fred.
However, Esther and Aksel are apprehensive about the hiding place they have selected so together they devise a new plan. First Esther burns all of her old clothes and replaces them with new clothes given to her by Aksel. She then gives herself a haircut using her Dad’s barbershop razor while also assuming a new identity as a young man named Ola. She then has the courage to find her way into a Nazi camp.
Amazingly Ola’s new identity successfully passes inspection by the Nazis, who bring her right back to the Johann’s farm. Why? The Nazi Commander – Herman (August Diehl) knows that Johann (Jakob Cedergre) is in need of farm help. The Commander has a romance unfolding with Johann’s wife. Johann, knowing that his crippled son and drunken brother are of no help to him with his work, readily agrees to take in someone new who can help with the farm chores. Johann additionally wants to curry favor with Herman as he anticipates and hopes to rise up in the local Nazi political party.
Ove rtime Johann and Anne sees Ola as the healthy son they never had.
As the Nazi occupation of Norway becomes more tenuous for the Jews in the region, Esther is worried that others in the family, like Fred, will find out her secret and will jeopardize her escape to Sweden and hope for survival. No more spoilers here…
The Bird Catcher is a powerful and engaging film, displaying deep losses due to war as well as forgiveness and redemption. It shows Esther’s shrewdness and willpower to survive at all cost in a world that doesn’t want her to.
British director Ross Clarke assembled a cast of top international talent, including the screenwriter Trond Morten and Danish actress Sarah-Sofie Boussnina in the role of Esther. 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. Johann is played by Jakob Cedergre, Anne by Laura Brin and Fred by Johannes Kuhnje.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this film is that it’s based on true historical accounts of Nordic communities during World War II that, according to the filmmaker, “are stories that aren’t well known”.
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 to Concentration Camps 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 directly to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Learning about his country’s Holocaust narrative, Clark 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.”
The cinematic backdrop of the film produces stunning winter images of Norway near the Swedish border. The snow-frosted forests and idyllic countryside provide a nice juxtaposition to the suspense and fear the characters experience.
Jeffery Giesener, former CEO of SourceMob, has both public and private company experience. Today, retired and enjoying life in San Diego, he’s a freelance writer who has a passion for both cinema and baking his Mom’s (OBM) European recipes.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World