The Zookeeper’s Wife
Niki Karo (2017)
Early in The Zookeeper’s Wife, the new film from New Zealand director Niki Karo (The Whale Rider) based on Diane Ackerman’s best-selling nonfiction book of the same name, the title character Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) climbs into the elephant habitat at the Warsaw Zoo, which she and her husband manage, where a distraught mother elephant is erupting with anxiety over her unresponsive calf. She is able to calm the mother and to save the calf from apparent asphyxiation by unclogging its trunk, while guests from a dinner party she had been hosting only moments before stand amazed, marveling at her courage, her resourcefulness, and her sympathy for and relationship with the animals. These qualities define her choices and her motivations through the remainder of the film.
At the same time, the visiting director of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of Captain America: Civil War) puts his own life on the line: Noting that Antonina’s assistant has no weapon to protect her, he climbs into the habitat himself to subdue and calm the male elephant while Antonina deals with the problem. There is from the beginning a professional connection between the two that, on his part, is augmented by a personal attraction as well.
The film begins with an almost idyllic scene. Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh of The Broken Circle Breakdown), have just become caretakers of the Warsaw Zoo in the summer of 1939, and the zoo is popular and flourishing under their management. Antonina rides around the zoo on a bicycle, accompanied by a baby camel who trots behind her. They play with lion cubs in their apartment. But the pact that Hitler has signed with Stalin puts Poland into an untenable position as buffer between Germany and Russia, and Jan warns Antonina that war may be coming and they should consider leaving Warsaw. She will not abandon her home, and the inevitable happens. On September 1, the German invasion begins, the bombs do not spare the zoo, and many animals are killed or, their cages destroyed, wander the streets of the city unattended. Eventually, when the chaos subsides and the German army occupies the city, the animals are rounded up, but many have been lost. And now the Żabińskis need to deal with their old acquaintance, Lutz Heck, who has been appointed Hitler’s chief zoologist.
Heck at first seems helpful: He convinces Jan and Antonina to allow him to “save” the zoo’s most important species by transferring them to the Berlin Zoo for the duration of the war. They will, of course, be returned when the war is over. Such requests, Jan quickly realizes, are not requests at all but veiled orders. Heck also has it in mind to perform what Jan considers ill-informed genetic experiments in breeding the animals, particularly an American Bison specimen, from whom he hopes to revive the long-extinct species of Aurochs. Heck’s motives and his sincerity become more suspect when, as winter approaches, he engages in the wholesale slaughter of most of the remaining animals in the zoo, as a “kindness” to them since he thinks it unlikely they will survive the harsh coming winter.
The disguising of cruelty under the cloak of social utility manifests itself all too son in the Germans’ handling of the Polish population as well. The Jews of Warsaw are harassed, their stores are trashed, they are forced to wear identifying armbands, and ultimately, they are rounded up and confined to the Warsaw Ghetto. The Żabińskis’ close friends, the entomologist Maurycy Franekel (Iddo Goldberg) and his wife Magda (Efrat Dor), come to Jan and Antonina to ask them to hold on to Franekel’s insect collection, his life’s work, and the Żabińskis decide to risk their own safety, and that of their son Ryszard, to hide Magda in their house and protect her from the Nazis.
But saving one life, it turns out, is not enough, and Jan and Antonina ultimately come up with a bold plan to turn the now abandoned zoo into a pig farm, to raise meat to help feed the German occupiers. For this, they must approach Heck and get his blessing for their scheme. The pigs will be fed with garbage from the ghetto. This enables Jan to bring a truck back and forth between the ghetto and the zoo without arousing suspicion, and allows him to smuggle Jews into the zoo to be hidden and cared for by Antonina until they can be secreted out of the area, all of this under Heck’s nose. In this way, the Żabińskis were able to save some 300 Polish Jews, all but two of whom ultimately survived the Holocaust.
The story itself is so compelling that it is hard to separate the movie from the story it tries to tell. And indeed there are a number of things that the movie does well. The image of the zoo is a powerful one, as it becomes symbol and metaphor for the plight of the Jews in Poland: It is difficult to ignore the parallel between Herr Heck’s genetic experiments with animals and the genetic experiments Nazi doctors are known to have performed on unwilling Jewish subjects, as well as their obsession with “pure Aryan” genetic lines. I’ve already mentioned the wholesale slaughter of zoo animals by someone thinking he was performing a public good, an act foreshadowing the “final solution.” It is hardly a stretch to note that the imprisonment of Poland’s Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto parallels and reflects the caged zoo animals, that it mirrors the Nazis dehumanization of the Jews, or, for that matter, that the Żabińskis’ empathy for their own animals cannot help but find a corresponding feeling in their attitudes toward the Jews. Add to this the fact that Chastain is, as always, powerful in the lead role, and Heldenbergh is solid as her supportive and stalwart husband, and it is clear that there is much in the film to celebrate. Shot in Prague rather than Warsaw, the film does a good job in capturing the tone and style of the era.
But there are other things to consider. There is for instance, the inevitable comparison with Schindler’s List, the elephant in the room, so to speak, of Holocaust movies about people helping Jews escape the Nazis. Whereas Schindler is a fascinating character, a war profiteer and playboy who nevertheless is moved to help people because, after all, he discovers a moral conscience, Antonina is a kind of secular saint whose motivation is far less complex. Nor is there a Ben Kingsley character here—none of the Jews saved by the Żabińskis is developed in much detail. We know enough about a few of them to have some sympathy for them, but there is no intense scene of a mother and daughter standing in the showers and expecting the gas to be turned on at Auschwitz. There is no little girl in the red coat. And while we’re considering Schindler’s List, there is also no Ralph Fiennes character.
Herr Heck is, of course, intended to be this person in the film, and though Brühl is perfect in the role, the script does not allow him to flesh out his character enough for the audience to understand what makes him tick. He admires the Żabińskis professionally, but is physically attracted to Antonina as well, and is more than willing to use his position as an SS officer to push his suit upon her. But he is a Nazi, and often simply acts as the stereotypical Nazi commandant would. We don’t really see beyond his Nazi mask to find out if what he feels for Antonina is simply lust or something deeper. We don’t see whether he has a real interest in animals or simply wants to use them. We never see exactly how he feels about Jews, or whether he is simply following the party line because it’s expected. And he forms a strange relationship with Antonina’s son, which promises to explode in the end. But his final actions are difficult to understand without the motivations we are not particularly clear on by the end of the film.
And speaking of the end of the film, it is climactic certainly, but the last half hour or so is not as tightly plotted as the rest of the film. The progress of the story sputters out in short scenes without clear transitions. I don’t know whether it was the editing or the script that allowed the plot to degenerate into disjointed fragments, or whether that effect was intended to reflect the disintegration of the German hold on Poland, but the effect feels confused to me.
So to sum up, The Zookeeper’s Wife has a great story and fine performances, but could, I think, have been better realized. Two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.
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