Sometimes I don’t understand critics and I wonder who they write their film reviews for. Yesterday, before I went to see The Zookeeper’s Wife, I read a trio of mainstream reviews—The New York Times, The Atlantic, Variety—all of which panned the movie.
Mostly they said it made the holocaust tame, and implied that the Zookeeper’s Wife, Antonina Zabinski (played by Jessica Chastain), cared more about the zoo animals than the human beings hiding in the zoo’s basement.
What a load of elephant excrement!
You likely know the storyline from the trailer. Some of you probably read the book by Diane Ackerman. Based on Antonina’s diary, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells of the real life couple who, beginning with the German invasion in 1939, hid 300 Jews in the basement of the Warsaw Zoo over the course of the German occupation. It was a dangerous and courageous undertaking for which the Zabinskis were recognized as Righteous Among Nations, a designation used to describe gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
While the film begins with Chastain cycling through the busy zoo on a lovely spring day, inviting a baby dromedary along on her morning rounds, calling out good morning to the lions and tigers and a bear—a polar bear—which, yes, firmly establishes her love of the animals, that affection for animals doesn’t preclude her concern for the Jews she and her husband hide. As the reality of Germany’s invasion hits, bombs blasting, Jews being herded into the ghetto, left to starve, it’s her idea to hide the wife of a friend and colleague to keep her safe. From there, Antonina’s husband, Jan broaches the idea of smuggling out more Jews from the ghetto where we see their mistreatment firsthand. Antonina embraces the idea, asks for more, as many as he can bring.
Hiding the Jews underground while the zoo is taken over by the Nazis is dangerous and terrifying for everyone involved.
Far from sanitizing the holocaust, as one critics claims, the film shows the ugliness of the German soldiers complicit in the occupation, the rounding up of the city’s Jews, the mistreatment of the elderly and vulnerable. When we see a line of children herded onto a rail car, their suitcases tossed aside in a pile like those you can see at Auschwitz today, no viewer can doubt the horror of the holocaust. It’s in the eyes of the youngest children, raising their arms up to be lifted into the railroad cars, innocent and ignorant of their fate.
Granted, The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t take us to the depths of the horror of the camps the way many films depicting the Holocaust do—I highly recommend Playing for Time with Vanessa Redgrave if you can get your hands on it— instead it tells of the bravery of one couple who fight the Nazis in their own way. I found the film both poignant and inspiring; even in the face of horror, we as humans have to stand up and do what we can, to fight persecution and that level of dehumanization where we can. It wasn’t enough for the Zabinskis to stand by shaking their heads sadly as Jews were persecuted, they got involved, doing what they could, Jan especially at great risk to his own life.
Forget the reviews, go see this film.
The Zookeeper’s Wife starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh (The Tunnel) as Jan and Daniel Bruhl as Hitler’s zoologist was directed by Niki Caro from a script by Angela Workman. Rated PG-13 The Zookeeper’s Wife is appropriate for younger viewers who may just be learning about Holocaust.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking everyone already knows all the grim facts of this page from history but they don’t. Jessica Chastain—who deserves an Oscar for her work here—said she only just learned that Anne Frank’s family were among those turned away from the United States, denied permission to enter. She wondered why she hadn’t learned that in school, but she hadn’t. It wasn’t part of the curriculum. I didn’t know that either until this year with the attention to the Syrian. refugees.