The Zookeeper’s Wife

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - Exclusive to Fortune

Despite its title, 'The Zookeeper’s Wife' is just as much about the other characters in the film. Visually, the screen is wide, bright and graceful, but disappoints with serious focus problems, according to Christian Tesfaye. For the topic at hand, the movie is too soft. 4 out of 10 stars

As devastating and nightmarish as World War II was, it was nonetheless an undeniably unique event. If it had taken place during the Dark Ages, when most of humanity denied science and reason, it would have made sense, but it occurred during a seemingly civilized period.

Fascists, Nazis and their sympathizers became evil just for the sake of being evil. Nefariousness became cool, prejudice a saving grace. Millions of children and women perished in gas chambers – their bodies either incinerated in specially designed crematoriums or buried in mass graves.

On the side, Hitler’s cronies experimented with humans as if lab rats. Human hair and body fat were used to make clothing and soap. As thus, various movies have been made, and books written, about the few people who persisted and remained sane throughout this time of madness.

It is perhaps strange that we find it important to celebrate and praise these people. After all, all they did was go out of their way to do the right thing. Our perception of mankind’s morality remains, rightly, so low, we are awe-stricken by human decency at every turn.

The Zookeeper’s Wife opens with an image of heaven. Antonina Zabiriska (Jessica Chastain) wakes up in the morning to her breezy cozy room where she sleeps with her child and two lion cubs. She puts her hand over her child’s feet and kisses one of the cubs.

Outside, the zoo is about to open. She greets every servant and animal with an air of joviality. As visitors come, she accepts them with open arms and a smiling face. When her chores are finished, she helps her husband haul away hay. The warm colors and friendly cameras remind us of the Garden of Eden.

Over a master shot of the zoo a text appears. It tells us the setting – Warsaw, Poland, 1939. And right away, we think, oh, those poor, poor schmucks. Mind you, it is not just the German aggression, which lasted five years, but the subsequent Soviet occupation that lasted half a century. However, whichever way they were going to stretch this movie, that Polish generation would never get a happy ending. But at least the Zabiriskas are gentiles.

In contrast to the Jews, they are safe from the invading Germans. But their friends and neighbours are not. Nearby, a ghetto is set up by the Nazis, and the Jews are removed from their houses and put there. Conditions are miserable. Helena is sympathetic, she starts out by helping a close friend, hiding her in the basement, but they soon recognize they could save more.

On the pretext of running a pig farm in the zoo, they smuggle Jews out of the ghetto, using leftover food for the pigs as a ploy. Daniel Brühl plays Hitler’s head zoologist, assigned to Poland. He first seems good hearted, but quickly grows into a callous wannabe scientist who tries to seduce Antonina. The character’s purpose in the movie seems superficial, a cheap basis for putting a human face on the distress the Zabiriskas feel. Whenever movies such as this are made, we have to look out for false veneration. This is a true story, based on the life of people who did good, respectable things. And filmmakers sometimes feel as if they need to be respectful to the real life people by avoiding the characters’ flaws, painting them as saints.

But what is a human being without his flaws, but a god?

The movie is too soft. We may not need more images to recall events of Holocaust atrocities – the Zabiriskas are too far from Auschwitz or Treblinka, courtesy of being gentiles – but they are in the middle of the struggle. They throw themselves headlong into the Jewish cause, without having to mull over the consequences much. It would have been more practical to show their ambivalence, that little voice in their heads that would have told them what they were doing could get them and their children killed.

Chastain is a very good actor, very dedicated, could squirm her way into many types of eccentric characters. But seeing The Zookeeper’s Wife, I have been forced to re-evaluate my assumptions. Her performance here is painfully bad, very hard to watch. It is not just that she seemed too dense – she either cries or speaks softly – it was her pathetic meandering Polish accent.

Despite the title, the film is just as much about Antonina’s husband and other supporting characters as it is about her. Johan Heldenbergh plays the husband, and does a better job. Casting the unknown actor was a great move as he does not look like a movie star, a refreshing break from Hollywood traditions.

Brühl, who plays the undecided villain, does his best with what he has been offered. I am always happy to watch a movie that is not in 3D. With The Zookeeper’s Wife, the screen was wide, bright and graceful. But the movie itself disappoints visually.

It has serious focus problems, where various shots blur what is supposed to be the centre of attention. And even if this is a style, an artistic choice, staying awake for the full 126 minutes of this movie is pretty hard.

Published on Jun 04,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 893]



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