WASHINGTON, D.C. — Actor Daniel Bruhl, one of the stars of the current movie “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” said he became a pacifist given his ancestors’ experiences with Europe’s 20th-century wars.
Bruhl is part German and part Spanish. His German father was born in 1937, two years before the outbreak of World War II, and his mother hailed from Spain, which was already embroiled in a brutal civil war at the time.
“My parents influenced us in that way,” Bruhl said of himself and his siblings. “I have embraced it ever since.”
Talking to Catholic News Service from Budapest, Hungary, where he was doing location filming for the upcoming TNT drama series “The Alienist,” Bruhl called pacifism “something that I’m fond of, that I believe in and I want to believe in, especially nowadays when we seem to be going in a completely opposite direction.”
In “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which is based on actual events, Bruhl portrays Lutz Heck, a German zoologist who acquires military power after the Nazis overrun Poland in 1939 to start World War II. He takes over supervision of the Warsaw Zoo and becomes smitten with Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain), the movie’s title character, who runs the zoo with her husband. The Zabinskis helped smuggle more than 300 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto into safe houses over the course of the war.
The Zabinskis are Catholic, although their piety isn’t flaunted on-screen. When husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) returns home after Antonina has given birth, their young son, Ryzsard (Val Maloku) tells him, “I named her Teresa, for the saint.”
“I was fascinated by the story of the Zabinski family,” Bruhl told CNS. “That was an inspiring, an interesting story itself. Then I was fascinated by the character of Lutz Heck. I didn’t know anything about him at first. I was curious. I wanted to find more about him. As a German, I’ve learned and read a lot about World War II, as you can imagine, and I’m amazed there are aspects of some characters, some stories that we didn’t know about.”
This is Bruhl’s second film role as a Nazi, having played the fictional Fredrick Zoller in the 2009 movie “Inglourious Basterds.”
“There’s certain questions that are always in our heads, growing up,” Bruhl said about the interior conversation he has about playing characters of his own ethnic heritage from such a dark era.
“At least my generation still was very much in touch with that chapter in history, just by talking to our grandparents’ generation and dealing with it at the school and talking about it with our parents, et cetera,” he added.
“The crucial question is the one about guilt, and what would I have done at the time,” said the 38-year-old actor. “Would I have done something courageous like the Zabinskis? Would I have given in out of sympathy with the regime, or sheer fear? That’s what happened a lot. What would I have done if I were offered certain privileges like Lutz Heck, who is supported by the regime and given luxuries. Therese are universal, inherent questions that give these stories and this subject matter so much interest.”
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is “undeniably inspiring” but “dramatically thin,” said a review by John Mulderig, CNS associate director of media reviews, in his assessment of the movie. “Director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman fall short of a compelling narrative,” he added, suggesting, “It might have made a better documentary than dramatization.” But Mulderig lauded Bruhl’s performance as he “maintains the ambiguity of Heck’s persona, part ruthless army officer, part humane man of science.”
The film received a classification of A-III — adults — for “considerable combat and other violence, a couple of marital bedroom scenes, a glimpse of upper female nudity and mature themes, including gang rape and adultery.”