Prior to my screening of Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, a representative from the International Rescue Committee addressed the audience. She didn’t so much as set up the film as much as she discussed the current refugee crisis, directing yr. correspondent to the IRC’s website, along with acknowledging a new set of myths and falsehoods that have surfaced in the wake of our current butterscotch fascist regime. She spoke passionately, mostly to a disinterested audience more concerned about getting a good seat for their free movie. Frankly, I could’ve heard her speak for the evening. In her candor, she articulated an increasingly impossible humanitarian struggle – a struggle that she doesn’t pay lip service to but takes part in day-in-day-out. To think that her précis, her gritty survey of the IRC’s efforts, would be followed by the glossy (dis)comforts of Caro’s film seems like a cheat, but then again: perhaps that’s the only way you and I can confront real agony.
So, to put it (bullishly, crassly, and/or obscenely), it is yr. correspondent’s assigned function to review The Zookeeper’s Wife. The film details the struggles of Antonia and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh), zoologists and caretakers at the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. They would go on to shelter numerous Jews throughout the war, extracting them from ghettos and hiding them in their household. All as Nazi soldiers use the zoo grounds as a way station. There’s a subplot involving a Nazi zoologist (Daniel Brühl) that complicates the Zabinski’s marriage, but nothing of tactile value is derived from this narrative inconvenience.
The film often registers as a series of half-measures. It’s too sanitized and non-confrontational. Too tasteful. I think we’ll all agree that to live is to suffer and that philosophy essentially reached its apex in Eastern Europe during the late 30s and into the 40s. And cinema has captured these moments of personal horror and atrocity with such uncompromising intensity, as seen with such clear-eyed vision in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist or Elem Klimov’s Come and See. There’s authenticity to those canonical works, primarily because the filmmakers have pieces of themselves in that past – there is no lip service to knowing that kind of human condition. They know it.
I can’t speak to Niko Caro’s experiences, but there’s a reverential quality to The Zookeeper’s Wife that’s encourages vicarious engagement. And for something that so clearly attempts to be a call for action, it barely has a pulse. Even its more tension-filled moments – most notably in a sequence that involves Jan Zabinski crossing a ghetto checkpoint with numerous Jews in tow – lacks any formal nuance. It’s all fairly congenial, keen to tug on heartstrings but disinterested in engaging in specifics. The fact is that these stories don’t always end well, contrary to what The Zookeeper’s Wife suggests.
So it’s easy to sneer at a film like this, one so well-intentioned, reassuring, and squeaky clean. I’m mostly allergic to this sort of Oscar-bait (I hate the term too, but it’s the optimal one to use with no corresponding phrase to supplant it) in part because they tend to trivialize their subject matter, reducing the aforementioned real agony into something palatable. But there’s an audience for this sort of thing (see: Hidden Figures) and who am I to dissuade interested viewers in a Holocaust drama. And if the film exposes more people to the IRC – let alone if this review does it – then I suppose that counts for something.