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Veteran German actor Daniel Brühl spoke to Paraag Shukla and Claire Barrett of World War II magazine about his latest film, The Zookeeper’s Wife. Based on the book by Diane Ackerman, the film tells the true story of Polish couple Antonina and Jan Żabiński, proprietors of the Warsaw Zoo who used their personal residence and the zoo’s compound to shelter hundreds of Jews during the war. Brühl, no stranger to playing historical figures, portrays Dr. Lutz Heck, a German zoologist and Nazi party member.

How did you first hear about this story? This is not your first time playing a character based on a real person. How did you research Lutz Heck?

I heard about the Żabiński family and knew what they had done at the Warsaw Zoo, but I didn’t know anything about my character. So, I did a lot of research! The best source was the series of books that he had written himself. Those were quite revealing because it allowed me to really get into his mind and understand him better. His books were about his time in Africa, his work as the Berlin zoo director, and so on. Reading his writing made it easier for me to understand what the man was like.

With a man like Lutz Heck, who was prominently associated with the Nazi party, it would have been easy to portray him as a cliché villain. Instead, you have portrayed him as a human with strengths and weaknesses. How did you approach the process of humanizing him?

That was the crucial question: how to find the right balance. We first get to know him as a smart, charming man—a zoologist who is friends with the Żabińskis, a nature lover, an animal lover. Then, throughout the course of the story, he is seduced by Nazi ideology and is given many opportunities by the regime. So, he begins slowly giving up his human values. That journey interested me, to play someone who gives up his humanity but still has a hint of it still there. He never turns into, as you said, a cliché of a Nazi, a total beast. There is always that ambiguity, and that interested me. If the character was a stereotypical Nazi, I don’t think I would have played it.

On that note, quite a few American or British films featuring German characters often take place during World War II. Do you feel that there are limited opportunities for someone like yourself to play characters not associated with wartime Germany and the Nazis?

Exactly. I’ve been sent only a couple scripts in the past 15 years that didn’t have a very cliché Nazi role; I was not at all interesting in those. When a story is worth telling, like that of this very courageous Polish couple, then I am always interested. Although the film is set during the Second World War, this subject is, unfortunately, still very relevant. Especially nowadays, when you look at the situation with fascism and neo-Nazism all over Europe. It is not extinct; it comes back in waves. It is therefore important tell the story of people like the Żabiński to remind the people of what happened. So, yes, there have been a lot of films about the war, but it is still important to tell these stories.

Does Lutz Heck have a reputation in Germany? Is he a known figure? Do know what happened to him after the war?

Interestingly, he is one of the guys who “got away with it.” He’s not really famous other than maybe among zoologists. There is still a monument in the Berlin zoo honoring him, which I found quite surprising. He had a good reputation as a scientist, an expert in his field, and he kept on writing and getting published. As with some other Nazis, like architect Albert Speer, I think Heck’s association with the Nazis was kept hidden. I am interested to see the reaction of German audiences when the film comes out, to see if it changes his reputation in Germany.

Heck eventually does some horrible things, particularly at the clear turning point for the character. What were the most challenging aspects of filming?

Probably the fact that I didn’t have empathy with him. That is rare. If I think back on all the parts that I have played, there is normally an understanding of the characters. But in this case, I felt a distance from Heck when he begins doing horrible things. Like the scene in which Heck intimidates the child and the key scene with Antonina towards the end—almost like Heck becoming a beast out of sheer despair. He cannot get the woman he loves and Germany is also falling apart. His whole existence, his ambitions—they don’t make sense, so out of hopelessness he becomes very evil. Those were the moments that were very unpleasant to play.

Since this is a film review column, we thought we would end on a positive note— if you could be any animal, what would you be?

[Laughs] Oh, that is a very good question! I think I’d like to be a bird, maybe an eagle. When we were filming—with all the animals, as you can imagine—I was very happy deal with the elephant. They are very clever, very smart! It took the elephant only one take to understand what we wanted it to do. It was very easy to work with. Other animals were a bit harder, especially for Jessica. It was admirable how she managed to deal with all of the different animals. I had one scene with an eagle, which my character shoots in the film. I had him on my arm and he would fly back and forth. Once he flew right back onto my arm, which was quite impressive. So wonderfully elegant! I think I would love to be an eagle. ✯

Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor of World War II and Aviation History magazines at HistoryNet.

The Zookeeper’s Wife opened in select theaters on March 31, 2017.