Am I borrowing a little too much outrage as I write about The Zookeeper’s Wife? It’s tough to know; I don’t exactly have any personal stake in feeling slighted by how the filmmakers treat certain characters, but I’ve been trying to be more mindful of how people are portrayed in the films I watch, as it is easy to take things for granted when I don’t have to worry much about how I am represented, and this is a sort of tricky one: Nobody but Nazis necessarily comes off as bad, per se, and screw Nazis, but there are other factors to how people are portrayed that come off as uncomfortable. In this case, I see corrals and cages, and think, hmm, especially since the filmmakers do seem to be drawing a direct line between how animals and people are treated.
Sometimes, this is really obvious, such as in the movie’s weirdest scene, when the German naturalist’s pushing two buffaloes to mate in the background is contrasted with him practically raping Jessica Chastain’s character in the foreground. It’s a weird scene, and not just because it’s not exactly something you expect to see in a PG-13 movie. Sure, it’s one where I sort of raised my eyebrow early, thinking that’s more nipple than you usually get with PG-13, which is in and of itself is kind of worth noting: Though it doesn’t have a lot of automatic-R stuff beyond that - no f-words and no really graphic violence - it’s still weird. This doesn’t really have the violence and outright horror that Holocaust films often do, and maybe it should. It substitutes killing animals for killing people, maybe so that it’s not too disturbing. The PG-13 may not have been what the filmmakers were shooting for, but I’ll bet they were looking for an R that didn’t batter people, and with this topic, should they?
They were almost certainly looking for an audience like the folks behind me, older folks who came out talking about what a good movie that was. I don’t necessarily fault them for that, but like I say in the review, they came out empathizing with the folks who weren’t going to be rounded up and gassed, and whose resistance wasn’t easy but also wasn’t as hard as it could be. It really felt like it was made to make people feel like they could have smuggled Jews out of the ghetto, rather than showing how terrifying and dangerous it was for everybody, and that does everybody involved a bit of a disservice.
Is that just me, or am I onto something here? I really don’t know; I’m analyzing it and getting to an emotional place through that route, which isn’t always the best way to get to the truth. But, once I saw that (and that the movie really wasn’t that great in the first place), it was hard to avoid.
The Zookeeper’s Wife
* * (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2017 in Capitol Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)
The Zookeeper’s Wife is not quite the movie it looked like, thankfully, although that might not be saying too much. I was fearing "Holocaust rescue but with cute animals to offset the horror", and it falls well short of that. Unfortunately, it’s still something that seems sanitized enough that the moments where it does get properly ugly come off as something the filmmakers can’t handle.
The zookeeper’s wife of the title is Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain); in 1938, her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, although the friendly-seeming visit of Berlin naturalist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) is a telling preview of the forthcoming invasion. Soon, Warsaw’s Jewish residents are being relocated to the ghetto, and everyone knows worse is on the way. Antonina and Jan start out by hiding one of their best friends in the attic, but soon set a larger plan: They offer up the now-empty zoo as a pig farm, with the hogs fed by the ghetto’s garbage, with weekly collection runs a way to smuggle people out. Heck, now a senior SS officer in Warsaw, agrees to the farm, but also insists he use some of the park for his pet project, which means the refugees must keep very quiet lest the Nazi guards be alerted.
Put aside the “based upon actual events” tag, and this is a good set of characters for this sort of story, and we know that from the start: The opening shows how well the Zabinskis get along with everybody, even if Antonina is the more outgoing one, especially as their backgrounds get filled in. I don’t know how much of Zeck is real and how much was created for the story, but there’s something supremely perfect about him as the outwardly-benign Nazi; he’s introduced telling a story of conservation that involves shooting wild animals but raising their cubs in captivity, his special breeding project is a doomed and absurd exercise in eugenics, and his sense of entitlement doesn’t initially seem outsized. It’s a great foundation for this sort of story, so long as the filmmakers careful where they go with it.
Full review on EFC.