I can’t imagine a more fitting title for The Zookeeper’s Wife. Hearing the title alone, one would have no idea that this was a film about the Holocaust. It’s about a zoo! Animals! Maybe even a love story!
Theoretically a Holocaust film, it could be argued that The Zookeeper’s Wife wasn’t one at all, as it lacked substantial representation of the true suffering in the Holocaust.
Set in Warsaw in 1939, The Zookeeper’s Wife begins with the happy zookeeper, his wife and their young son. The Zabinski family ran the Warsaw Zoo, and were forced to clear the zoo of the animals by Nazis. One of the the only scenes during which I felt I had to look away was one where Nazis killed one of the zoo animals. The fact that this is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the entire movie is telling.
The true suffering of the Jews was not well portrayed. The scenes of the Warsaw Ghetto were toned-down and PG-rated. Furthermore, the Zabinskis, who turned the zoo into a hog farm and smuggled 300 Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto, were able to smuggle the Jews out with few complications. I would think that at least one of the times a Nazi might have gotten somewhat close to discovering one of the Jews. The Zabinskis, and the filmmakers, almost made it look easy.
The film focused too much on the zookeeper’s wife, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain). Chastain looked beautiful and did an amazing job portraying Antonina. In an interview panel released by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Chastain discussed her ambition to show the growth and strength of Antonina. She attempted to show Antonina’s ability to run the household when her husband was away and how this strength intensified their relationship upon being reunited. Antonina exhibited immense complication and strength in her interactions with Nazi Lutz Heck. Chastain accomplished her goal and could not have done a better job playing Antonina.
However, too much of the movie was about Antonina. Viewers learn a lot about her, but not about the Jews she was saving. We never learn most of the hidden Jews’ names. We never find out the stories of these people that Antonina and her husband risked their lives to save. As stated above, the title proves fitting, as the film centers around Antonina.
On the other hand, true suffering and terror is portrayed substantially in the film as well. A storyline following a young, raped girl is tear-wrenching and difficult to watch. I spoke with a professor who had seen the film as well, and he told me the most powerful scene for him was of an old man. The old man was entering a train, one he knew would lead him to his death, at Auschwitz with a number of young children. Mr. Zabinski tried to save him and smuggle him out, but the old man would not go. He felt the need to stay with the children and comfort them to the end. He sacrificed his life to support these children to their death.
The cinematography and storyline allow for a number of very powerful interpretations for viewers to consider. In my Imagining the Holocaust class with the Prof. Dan Schwarz, English, we recently read the graphic novel Maus by Art Spielberg. In Maus, the Jews are each drawn as mice. The Nazis are illustrated as cruel-looking cats. Yet, in the paintings on the wall by the hidden Jews, Antonina was drawn as a mouse as well as the Jews. Was this to symbolize that they were all prisoners? That Antonina too was deemed inferior by the Nazis because of her actions? I am not sure what to make of this artwork, but I am sure that it adds another level of understanding and intellectual intensity to the film.
The contrast of the Jews and animals is quite powerful. Nazis often referred to Jews in concentration camps by different animal names, such as pigs. Jews were treated like animals in a number of different ways. Dehumanization of Jews in the camps is often illustrated through animal references. That is why The Zookeeper’s Wife is so compelling. Jews were hidden from the Nazis in a zoo. They lived where animals lived. The zoo animals were cleared out and the hidden Jews took their place. The Warsaw zoo became a zoo of Jews.
As someone who views and reads a lot about the Holocaust, I truly enjoyed The Zookeeper’s Wife. I do think that it could have been more powerful if it focused less on Antonina and more on the Jews.
It is important how we tell stories of the Holocaust in this day and age. There are fewer and fewer survivors still alive. We must work to shape memory and interpretations of society to know about and see the true terror exhibited in the Holocaust. That is why I wish that the Warsaw ghetto scenes were more historically accurate. I would not want someone to think that the Holocaust was not as gruesome as it was. The Zookeeper’s Wife does not illustrate the suffering enough. It also does not ever truly show the imminent death that the Zabinskis saved these Jews from. The film also assumed that viewers already knew about Auschwitz, Treblinka and other concentration and death camps.
However, I do still encourage you to go see the movie. The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the incredible story of true heroism: the Zabinskis risked their lives to save 300 Jews.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is playing at Cinemapolis in the Commons.
Becky Frank is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.