Imagine Schindler’s List meets meets Jurassic Park. The Holocaust with baby elephants, bunny rabbits, and a bit of A-list actress nipple.
In a month where a boneheaded Holocaust mistake was news, it’s interesting that very little of note has been written about a new movie called The Zookeeper’s Wife. Within a few seconds of the film’s open we are told that what’s about to unfold is a true story. We then promptly witness a silly and gleeful Jessica Chastain riding her bike around an idealized zoo in Warsaw. It’s supposed to be the lost moment of history just before the Nazis invade Poland. Friendly, funny animals greet her as she makes the morning rounds.
“Lushly shot,” proclaims Vox, aka master of the obvious, billion dollar valuation, progressive millennial news company.
Indeed along with music and softly color-corrected luster, it would be no surprise to see a bright shiny bushy-tailed Rikki-Tikki-Tavi run across the screen. We were waiting for Orson Welles to break in with his famous narration of the old Rudyard Kipling story. “Every well-bred mongoose hopes to be a house mongoose someday,” said Welles in the film. And that’s just what a band of desperate, and lucky, Jews becomes as the Zookeepers save their lives from the Nazis. An offensive comparison when you see it on the page, but somehow it passes on the screen as the viewer is lulled into movie-coma. A palatable, Forest Gump like experience.
A not so bad, bad-guy, horny Nazi Zookeeper/animal breeder is the main antagonist in the story. He chooses the zoo to carry out some crazy breeding experiments with large buffalos. A note for the film’s director, Niki Caro; next time please give us a dark, disgusting and attractive Ralph Fiennes as created by Steven Spielberg, or some
layers, or depth, or even the straight-up bozos from Hogan’s Heroes. But tepid sexual frustration and the perversion of animal love just don’t cut it for a villain.
“I wanted to portray Antonina (the zookeeper’s wife) because I love the compassion she exemplified and the heroism in that compassion,” Ms. Chastain said in an interview about the film. That’s surely a good motivation, and, heck, it’s the holocaust. It’s perfectly ok to be earnest. Next time, a better voice coach for the faux Polish accent might help further the enterprise. (You kind of wonder if Ms. Chastain is a British aristocrat with a burnt tongue who had once been to Central Europe.)
Then there is a fleeting shot of Ms. Chastain’s breast, just kind of randomly inserted in a semi-love scene. Again, what movie are they trying to make here? And there are a few more shots where Chastain strokes bunny rabbits so earnestly it is hard not to cringe. The little rabbits are supposed to be a device for offering love to a young Jewish girl who has withdrawn into her pain after being raped by the Nazis. Make up your own mind on this aspect of the drama.
The Zookeepers further their humanitarian enterprise by starting a pig farm, fed by trash from the Jewish ghetto. That last detail is ironic and amazing, as is the basic story which spawned the film. For the record, the actual zookeepers, Antonina and Jan Zabinski, did help save hundreds of people, and some animals. They are recognized as “Righteous Among The Nations” by the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. They are credited with saving 300 Jews.
No one should stop telling this kind of story. Ever. But there’s a reason Disney doesn’t do Holocaust.