EXCLUSIVE: Michel Hazanavicius, who won the Oscar in February for helming The Artist, is in talks to direct the Universal Pictures/Playtone adaptation of the Erik Larson nonfiction book In The Garden Of Beasts. Tom Hanks will star in the film and produce it with partner Gary Goetzman, and I’m hearing that they are courting Natalie Portman to play his daughter in the harrowing pre-WWII tale.

Hanks will play William Dodd, a mild-mannered Chicago professor who becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany before the Nazis began to assert an iron grip across Europe. At first, his family embraces the vibrant scene in Berlin, and his young daughter Martha (the role they want Portman to play) in particular falls hard for the seduction and engages in a series of affairs with the handsome men of the Third Reich and even the first chief of the Gestapo. Soon enough, the ambassador gets reports of violence against Jews and even though his dispatches to the State Department are met with indifference, he continues to be concerned with the growing press censorship and the passage of shocking laws. It leads to the gradual realization of the horrific genocide that Hitler actually has planned for Europe and the world. Portman isn’t set yet, but I hear Hazanavicius is preparing to work on a draft with a writer that will soon be hired.

The project is a priority for Universal Pictures co-chairman Donna Langley. Hazanavicius is repped by CAA, as is Hanks. As for Hanks and Goetzman, they are up for an Emmy for the Jay Roach-directed HBO film Game Change, about the rise of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to Vice Presidential candidate on the Republican ticket.

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