Sometimes a phrase can be so applicable to a film’s discourse that quoting it can often make watching of the movie completely redundant. In this case, the phrase that would be most applicable to Niki Carro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) is, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” which was first written by George Santayana and paraphrased and tweaked by many others to fit ever shifting meanings. I wish that Caro had merely made her spin on this phrase and said, “Those who trivialize history are condemned to be responsible for history losing its importance,” instead of wasting two-hours of everyone’s time with this bland, drab and ultimately, potentially harmful film, however unintentional that harm may be.
Films that directly handle the Nazi occupation of Europe or the holocaust are a tricky tightrope for any filmmaker to walk, as there is a danger that sentimentality can overtake the proceedings and cause the film to appear like a piece of fiction; the effect then cheapens the real-life horror. Unfortunately, melodrama creeps into The Zookeeper’s Wife from its opening scene where we see Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain, playing the titular wife of the zookeeper) riding her bicycle through her zoo greeting every animal as if they were human friends. Surprisingly, each animal seems to roar, tweet or make whatever call it may make as a greeting. One almost expects bluebirds to come flying out of frame and dance around her as if she were a Disney princess.
It is understandable that Carro and Chastain, who is also the film’s executive producer, do not wish to portray Antonina or Jan (Johan Heldenbergh, Antonina’s husband) as anything other than warm, heartfelt people and to portray Lutz (Daniel Bruhl) as anything other than a mustache twirling villain. After all, Lutz was a Nazi, and the Zubinskis were two frightened innocents who were living in Nazi occupied Poland who saved several hundred Jews and Polish resistance fighters. I’m sure Carro thought that portraying them any other way would be wrong. However, by not portraying these characters in shades of gray, it makes them appear less human and more like caricatures removed from history. This has an undesired effect of removing these people from history and trivializing the history of the time.
Other than the scene above of Antonina greeting the animals with childish glee, Lutz’ introduction is equally blunt. He regales members of a dinner party with stories of animals he has killed, much to Antonina’s horror; there is little to distinguish Lutz from Clayton, the villain from the Tarzan stories, as depicted by Brian Blessed in the Disney version of the story. Whether or not scenes such as these happened, as this is based on a true story, they don’t feel real; through their falseness, they cheapen what should be a portrayal of the apparent coldness of someone who is so dedicated to the Nazi regime.
As a contrast, see Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) or any adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, all of which make no attempt to portray their characters as anything other than human. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a complacent factory owner and a war profiteer, and both the families in The Pianist and Anne Frank’s Diary can often be fairly antagonistic towards one another. This helps lend these retelling of true events a degree of authenticity since they are depicted as human. Both The Pianist and Schindler’s List attempt to portray several of their Nazi characters shades of grey, too, as it gives the atrocities perpetrated by them meaning when we are shown they are capable of mercy. Instead, TheThe Zookeeper’s Wife subjects us to several scenes of Jessica Chastain looking on in saucer-eyed, lip quivering horror as Daniel Bruhl and a group of nameless, cackling Nazis do things that would not seem unusual for a villain in a Saturday morning cartoon. For example, when Lutz is instructing his soldiers to kill the animals, he decides to kill the last animal left alive personally.
I don’t wish to overstate the potential danger this could possess to those who are not aware or are too young to have learned about the extent of the horror that the Nazis caused throughout Europe. I am not trying to say that one film that trivializes history’s greatest travesties will cause those who see it not to believe that it happened. What I am saying is that the continuing habit of making bland films about the war can cause a collective disinterest about the history it attempts to depict. I also think that the constant barrage of movies about the Nazis can often be fairly cynical in that when they are successful, it can be an easy shorthand to success during awards season. As a people, we have a greater responsibility to our past lest future generations believe that the war was only suitable for producing first-person shooter games and very inert dramas.
Scenes of Jews being rounded up into ghettos or Jewish children being victimized in the streets have become so common place, that these images have a dulling effect, perhaps because these are events we wish to block out of our collective memories and partly because such images may no longer work on a numbed audience. I don’t believe that it was either Carro or Chastain’s intention to make the Jewish people’s plight seem secondary, but by making the Zabinski's the protagonists, who before they start saving children are concerned mostly with the fate of their zoo, the Jewish characters become somewhat incidental to the proceedings. This is not to say that Zabinski's were not brave or deserving of having their story told, but by condensing their story into a two-hour film, the characters of the lives they saved come across as little more than extras.
It is more than possible that most of my concerns with the story were true of the real Antonina, and this is merely a faithful adaptation of her story; perhaps her constantly altruistic actions were true to form, but something is troubling about it. It may have been possible that Antonina’s diary was faithfully adapted from a biography by Diane Ackerman, which, in turn, was faithfully tailored to the screen. I would be lying if I said I had read it and I’m ready to concede if this is all true, but it feels slightly dishonest. As mentioned before, Jessica Chastain both stars in the film and serves as one of its executive-producers. While I don’t want to suggest that the character was sanded of darker edges or selfish thoughts, the portrayal of Antonina here is as if it has been shaped to better suit the actor to make her come across in the best light possible. If true, this is a disservice to Antonina and history in general, and if I’m wrong here, it doesn’t change the fact that portraying someone who was always altruistic and guileless makes for an incredibly boring movie.
One may argue that the problem with the film’s pacing is due to the Zabinski's acts of heroism were done over many years, therefore lacking any suspenseful chase scenes or shoot outs. However, as a counter argument, I would offer Vincent Perez’s Alone in Berlin (2016) which depicts a middle-aged couple committing small acts of rebellion by leaving postcards with anti-Nazi messages in areas of middle-class Berlin. It’s not a perfect film, as it succumbs to some of the same melodrama The Zookeeper’s Wife does, but its story feels real. This is because of the central couple, played by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, is very human in the way they talk to one another; occasionally sniping at one another when things seem to be their most bleak. Any story depicting the Nazi regime can be cinematic, no matter how small it may be, it just isn’t enough to only depict acts of horror, if it feels untrue the horror won’t resonate. Hopefully, with The Zookeeper’s Wife underperforming at the box office and not receiving a single Oscar nomination, it will send a clear message that movies such as this will simply not do when portraying the war.