In 'The Zookeeper's Wife,' Entertainment Trumps Holocaust Reality

It wouldn't have surprised anyone if 'The Zookeeper's Wife' star Jessica Chastain burst into song like a Disney princess

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
Jessica Chastain in 'The Zookeeper’s Wife.'
Jessica Chastain in 'The Zookeeper’s Wife.'Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features, LLC.
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

In “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” directed by New Zealander Niki Caro, Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinska, who together with her husband Jan hid and saved the lives of over 300 Jews smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Chastain – one of today’s leading American actresses, whom I like quite a bit, and who in this case also produced – chooses to perform her role in Polish-accented English. I don’t understand why filmmakers persist in this practice; after all, English is supposed to represent the Polish that Antonina actually spoke, and surely she did not speak it with an accent. Does the Polish intonation of Chastain’s English make her character more believable?

I focus on this seemingly trivial aspect of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” because it demonstrates the overall conventionality with which Caro presents the Zabinskis’ story, itself well worth commemorating. Antonina and Jan (played by Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh with an accent of his own) ran the Warsaw Zoo when the Germans invaded Poland and World War II broke out.

In the movie’s opening scene, we see the zoo in all its welcoming glory before the trouble begins. Chastain plays Antonina as a woman glowing with love for the animals under her care. Were she to burst into song like an animated Disney heroinewhile making her morning rounds, we almost would not be surprised. She also loves her husband and young son, who sleeps with two lion cubs by his side, but she doesn’t seem to look at them with the same amount of emotion as she does, say, the elephants.

German bombs destroy the zoo. Some of the animals survive and flee to the streets of Warsaw; others are killed in the bombings or shot by German soldiers.

When the Jews of Warsaw are relocated to the ghetto, which strikes Antonina as just plain wrong – that’s the movie’s main emotional register – she convinces her husband that they should hide her best friend Magda (Israeli actress Efrat Dor). This decision eventually leads to the couple’s further effort to get as many Jews as they can from the ghetto to the zoo, which is patrolled daily by German soldiers but is deserted at night. What makes this plan possible is Jan’s suggestion that Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a Nazi zoologist who takes over the zoo, turn it into a pig farm that will feed the German troops. The pigs themselves will eat the garbage of the ghetto, an arrangement that allows Jan to enter the ghetto with his truck and smuggle out Jews – first children and then adults, some of whom stayed at the zoo for only a few days, while others spent the entire war there.

Caro turns this story into a Holocaust melodrama that only barely touches on its horrific historical background; it offers two main protagonists that lack all depth. This is especially evident at the moment when Antonina and Jan decide to risk their lives, and the life of their son, by helping the ghetto Jews. This crucial turning point is presented casually; what interests Caro and her screenwriter, Angela Workman, who based the screenplay on Diane Ackerman’s best-selling nonfiction book from 2007, is only the heroic dimension of the act, not its motivations.

Do the couple decide to save Jews because they love animals, and therefore also people (Antonina says at one point that she has more faith in animals than in humans)? We usually do not need an explanation for why a person performs a heroic deed; but because Antonina and Jan are so threadbare in the movie, we need to know a little more about what drives them. Since the director gives us such superficial characters and portrays their dangerous work in such a placid manner, her movie generates no suspense, even at its most fateful moments. The result therefore feels more like an adventure than the commemoration of the Holocaust through the Zabinskis’ story.

Emotional detachment

Caro, it seems, wanted to make a moderate Holocaust melodrama that offers “inspirational” entertainment without unsettling the audience too much – if at all. We do get a glimpse of the daily dangers faced by Antonina, Jan and the people they are hiding, as well as of the horrors occurring at the Warsaw Ghetto. The burning of the ghetto and the expulsion of its inhabitants are depicted with an odd emotional detachment. We even get to meet Janusz Korczak (Arnost Goldflam), who refuses Jan’s pleas that he join the fugitives at the zoo and instead boards the fateful train with his students.

But Caro and Workman seem more interested in the relationship that develops between Antonina and the Nazi zoologist, the movie’s arch-villain. Heck is drawn to Antonina and flirts with her; to protect her family and her secret mission, Antonina pretends to respond, which makes Jan jealous. This reaction, which suggests that Jan does not understand the difficulty his wife is negotiating, makes him out to be something of an idiot and limits our ability to identify with him.

The ghetto fugitives are an anonymous blur, but in keeping with the movie’s overall conventionality, Caro relies on the formula of bringing one of them into relief and letting her figure and story stand for the whole group. In this case, the focus falls on young Urszula (another Israeli actress, Shira Haas). After witnessing the girl’s rape by two German soldiers, Jan pushes her into his truck and brings her to the zoo, where she hides in a cage, unable to utter a word or even say her own name. With a banality that borders on kitsch, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” shows us Antonina’s efforts to help the traumatized girl (with the help of an adorable bunny).

With the exception of this story, Caro might perhaps have deserved praise for trying to avoid excess melodrama and sentimentality. In this case, however, the avoidance is not really a virtue, because it serves the movie’s overall shallowness. There is something glitzy about “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” a predilection for elegance and even ostentation that emphasizes its lack of depth. Entertainment counts for more here than the memory of the Holocaust or the brave acts of the Zabinskis, as implied by Chastain’s appearance: no matter what kind of hardship she suffers through, she remains throughout a carefully designed figure in attractive clothes and a
flattering hairdo.

Polish audiences may enjoy “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which shows two of their own performing heroic deeds, hints that there were other good Poles like them, and sidesteps the role the Polish played in the war. Germans are the only bad guys here.

Any Holocaust movie is bound to be at least somewhat interesting for the contribution it makes – whether substantive or dubious – to the ongoing debate of the relation between the memory of the Holocaust and its cinematic representation. I’ve written before about the problems involved in the many entertainment-minded Holocaust melodramas made in the wake of “Schindler’s List,” which broke the dam and brought on the deluge. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” brings this problematic output to a new peak. It is not surprising, therefore, that the movie’s most thrilling scene involves not the atrocities inside the ghetto, the suffering of the refugees hidden in the zoo, or the dangers threatening Jan and Antonina, but rather the heroine’s rescue of a newborn elephant who almost chokes to death.

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