The Birdcatcher

A story of choices and survival

The Birdcatcher

Esther/Ola lights candles to keep warm while hiding from the Nazis. The eight candles are reminiscent of a menorah for Chanukah, a Jewish holiday that celebrates religious freedom.

MICHAEL KLEINER
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

“For he shall rescue from
the trap of the birdcatcher
From the destructive pestilence,
With his pinions he will cover you
And under his wings you will take refuge.”

— Psalm 91: 3—4

With these wo rds, the movie The Birdcatcher begins, a story of the Norwegian-Jewish experience during World War II.

Danish actress Sarah-Sofie Boussina desperately wanted to play Esther/Ola, a Jewish Norwegian teenager in 1942 occupied Norway in the movie The Birdcatcher. 

The film character, Esther, dreams of being an actress. 

They both got their wish. Esther/Ola literally plays the role of her life, disguising herself as a boy to survive on Johann Dalgaard’s (Jacob Cedergren) farm outside Trondheim, with Johann’s wife Anna (Laura Birn), son Aksel (Arthur Hakalahti), who has a physical disability, his lazy, alcoholic brother, Fred (Johannes Kuhnke) and Nazis. Johann longs to be on the Nazi council in Trondheim. 

However, all the principal characters in The Birdcatcher are keeping secrets, trying to escape their own situations, and finding the best way to survive. “Sarah had real dedication for this role,” said Kuhnke via Zoom from Belgium. “She came to the casting audition with her hair already cut.”

Boussina was 27 and newly married when the movie was filmed. Norwegian screenwriter Trond Morten Kristensen Venaasen wrote the script. The film was produced by Lisa G Black, an independent film producer and owner of Garnet Girl in Wilmington, Del., Leon Clarence, and director/producer Ross Clarke, none of whom are Jewish. 

An Italian-American, Black grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Edison, N.J. Her father’s best friend survived Dachau concentration camp and became her “Uncle” Nat. Venaasen’s best friend is Jewish, whose great grandmother perished in a concentration camp after she stayed in Norway, while the rest of the family fled to Sweden. 

The Birdcatcher“I watched a lot of war movies,” said Venaasen from Lillehammer. “The documentary Shoah [1985] hooked me. It was heartbreaking. I learned a lot about humanity viewing that film. This was also a part of the Norwegian history that wasn’t spoken about. Jewish lists started as early as 1936, not in 1940 when the Germans came to Norway. It was already well organized by Quisling’s party. I started reading about the Norwegian occupation. 

“When I read the name of my best friend’s ancestor on a deportation list, it brought the story closer to me. That could have been my friend. Then, I interviewed survivors.”

“What drew me was the subject, the way Trond wrote it, and it was set in Norway,” said Black from Wilmington. “Not everyone remembers occupied Norway. Trond brought it to a level where you understood the culture at that time, how owning a farm, passing it from father to son was very important. He wrote these characters to have so much humanity in them and struggle. They weren’t buying all the way into Nazi propaganda. He brought understanding of the Jewish culture for somebody who was not Jewish. 

“We had a consultant from the Jewish history museum in Trondheim to make sure everything was accurate. It was super important to us to make sure that we honored the culture correctly. I thought Trond handled beautifully the delicate balance of being a Norwegian, knowing the Norwegian history and being able to show both sides of that struggle. How do you know what side to pick and walk that fine line? Esther’s story is just trying to survive.”

Black was cofounder of the U.S.-Norway Film Development Initiative, which in part, led to the Norwegian government creating financial incentives for filming in Norway. The Birdcatcher is the first of two feature films that developed from the initiative and received incentive and regional funding. It is filmed entirely in and around Trondheim, forcing the actors to perform in real environmental conditions. She insisted it be in English to broaden its global appeal.

The cast had two Norwegians and Swedes, one Dane, one Finn, one German. Fifty percent of the film crew were women, 75% Norwegian.

Venaasen named Esther for the queen in the Bible, a Jewish heroine for freedom in the Purim holiday story. Esther’s father, Hans (Dag Mahmberg), is a barber—taken from a barber survivor in Shoah—and police officer Tor (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), warns him that Jews are being arrested elsewhere. “We have tickets to America,” says Hans. The Nazis, with Tor one of the police officers, arrest Hans, who states he’s a Norwegian. “No, you’re a Jew.”

“All of a sudden, they’re not Norwegian anymore?” said Black.  “That’s compelling. That is a part of Jewish history that needs to continue to be told.”

Tor returns to smuggle out Esther and her mother (Andrea Bræin Hovig). Esther asks why Tor didn’t help Papa. “Sometimes, you have to pretend to survive.”

“Ross added that line,” said Venaasen. “The whole script was built off of her wanting to be an actress and becoming something else to survive.”

The transport is stopped. Her mother hides Esther in the truck. All the others are taken off and shot. 

Aksel quietly helps her, providing her with boys’ clothes. After the barber’s daughter/son cuts his own hair, he appears at the farm. Johann treats Aksel horribly, often, just calling him “Boy,” stripping Aksel of his identity. He is abusive to his wife and brother. 

“Aksel doesn’t know anything about friendship because he has been hidden because of his own disability,” said Venaasen. “In the beginning, he used her to his benefits, but then he understands that she can be a friend.”

Birdcatcher

The Birdcatcher is an award-winning historic thriller that tells the story of a young Norwegian Jewish girl from Trondheim who disguises herself as a boy to survive in Nazi-occupied Norway.

Ola tries to build Aksel’s self-esteem. Aksel sees his road to freedom from his tyrant through Ola.

Ola is an able worker. Johann sees him as the son he wished he had. Every rite of passage that should go to Aksel, is given to Ola, including a Nazi Youth uniform and promise of inheritance of the farm. Johann, himself, is trying to escape his life of poverty and feels working with the Nazis and being named to the council is his ticket to stature. 

When Anna learns Ola is a girl, she protects the secret. Ola says he’ll keep Anna’s affair with the Nazi, Herman (August Diehl), quiet. Anna plans to escape her bondage by fleeing with Herman. Ola says, “You’ll be safer with Mr. Dalgaard.”

Fred was not in the original script, but Kuhnke wanted to be part of the project. 

“Fred’s not the traitor very nicely,” said Kuhnke. “You can understand him because he has lost his years. He is a heavy drinker, is losing his life, watching his brother take his farm from him, and he has nothing. Then, you can understand, why is he inviting these guys into his life? Because he’s lost everything. You can see the mechanism behind him, the power.”

Everything is building up to Johann hosting a huge feast with the Nazis, where his position on the council will be announced. In a strange ritual, Ola is brought to the Nazi officers to “show what kind of man he is,” by having him stripped of his clothes, revealing he’s a girl. Ola says, “I’m a Jew and he’s been hiding me,” feeling she was comfortable enough to reveal herself while exposing Johann.

The ending is ripe for discussion. “Humanity wins in the end,” said Venaasen. The trio feels the movie is relevant today with the rise of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States. As the Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and The Birdcatcher serves as a warning.

In 2019, the film won 19 awards and was the nominee/official selection in seven festivals, including Best Feature Film (Garden State Film Festival, Hill Country FF, Fairhope FF, Lone Star FF, Best Nordic Feature Santa Barbara FF); Best Actor (Cedergren), Actress (Boussina), Cinematography (John Christian Rosenlund), Original Score and Sound (both Jim Copperthwaite) and Exceptional Women in Film Award (Black) at GSFF; Best Cinematography (GSFF, Hill Country, European Cinematography Awards, Los Angeles Cinematography Awards, New York Cinematography Awards, APH Copenhagen FF); Best Supporting Actor (Hakalahti) (Open World Toronto Film Festival). It was the Official Selection at the Santa Barbara FF (world premiere), Kosmorama Trondheim International FF, Rehoboth Beach Jewish FF, Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, Boca Raton Jewish FF, and Monadnock International FF. 

It has played to packed houses at its world premiere in California, Texas, and New Jersey, where 1,500 people attended opening night, including Uncle Nat, now 96. He received a standing ovation. 

“I grew up looking at the numbers on his arm,” said Black. “He said, ‘this was very good.’ To have a Holocaust survivor, moved by what Trond wrote, what Ross directed and what the actors brought was really special.”

The Birdcatcher is available on Amazon Prime Video, Tubi, FiOS, and Xfinity on-demand.

All photos by Iam Corless

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.

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