Niki Caro (2017)
Much of the work of the New Zealand director Niki Caro has been for television. In the cinema, she is best known for Whale Rider (2002) and North Country (2005). Both those films are built round a strong heroine (played, respectively, by Keisha Castle-Hughes and Charlize Theron, each of whom was Oscar-nominated for her performance) – so too is Caro’s latest, The Zookeeper’s Wife. The title character is Antonina Żabińska, who, with her husband Jan, ran the Warsaw Zoo before and after the Second World War. During the war years, following the near-destruction of the zoo by a German aerial bombardment, the couple took in new, human inmates – secretly rescuing Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto and giving them refuge. Bringing this story to the screen presents Niki Caro with the usual challenges of dramatising the lives of outstandingly brave civilian war heroes. Will the film-maker be prepared to complicate and humanise her thoroughly admirable protagonists? Will she stick to the historical facts? Will she be able to reinvigorate what is, by now, a familiar kind of narrative? In this case, the answer to all three questions is no. Working with a screenplay by Angela Workman, Caro has made a conscientious but unimaginative movie. One important respect in which The Zookeeper’s Wife departs from the facts is more startling than most of what has ended up on the screen.
The pre-war Warsaw Zoo, as described in the opening sequences, verges on the prelapsarian. Lion cubs sleep in the Żabińskis’ bedroom. Antonina goes out into a perfect summer’s day to greet her husband (Johan Heldenbergh) and the zoo staff, all cheerfully at work. The various animals that frolic about seem like exotic household pets – there’s barely a cage in sight. The Edenic atmosphere darkens at a drinks party the Żabińskis host for German visitors: the guests include the immediately creepy Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), director of the Berlin Zoological Garden. Later the same evening, Antonina proves her resourceful, life-saving qualities by reviving a newly-born elephant calf but the Nazi invasion of Poland then gets underway. On 1 September 1939, the zoo takes a direct hit and many of the animals are killed. Heck urges Antonina and Jan to let him save what remains of the prize specimens by moving them to Berlin, for the duration of the war. They agree, reluctantly and suspiciously; Heck, now a high-ranking Nazi officer, returns soon afterwards and orders the destruction of the remaining, less valuable animals, on the grounds that they couldn’t survive the oncoming winter. In case we were in any doubt of his actual motives, he proves his sadism by shooting an eagle and telling a subordinate to have it stuffed.
Heck also wants to use the zoo’s surviving bison in experiments aimed at reviving the breeding of aurochs, the wild oxen extinct since the seventeenth century (and known to this viewer thanks entirely to Beasts of the Southern Wild). Jan and Antonina successfully propose to Heck turning the zoo’s remaining facilities into a pig farm, to provide food for the occupying forces. From this point, the Żabińskis develop a project to give shelter to local Jews – first a friend (Efrat Dor), then a teenage girl (Shira Haas), whom Jan rescues from the Warsaw Ghetto, where she’s been raped by German soldiers. Jan is soon making regular trips to the Ghetto, to pick up vegetable waste for the pigs. He conceals children in his truck, beneath the peelings. The Żabińskis’ humanitarian mission expands, as their daring increases, to include men and women too. The secret guests live in the large cellars of the couple’s house in the zoo grounds.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a reminder that the title of the Thomas Keneally novel that became a Steven Spielberg film was Schindler’s Ark. The story contains a nexus of themes relating to the protection and destruction of animals and people, and to the bestiality of which humans are capable. This makes the image of the Jewish children hidden under prospective pig food especially disturbing; there’s a sequence too in which Jan witnesses inhabitants of the Ghetto being ‘herded’ into the cattle trucks that are an essential part of Holocaust iconography. Lutz Heck’s breeding experiments naturally evoke the Nazis’ interest in eugenics and the work of Josef Mengele in particular. Yet, remarkably, Niki Caro and Angela Workman (whose script is based on a non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman) downplay the shocking imagery of human captivity – at least if Wikipedia is to be believed. According to the entry on Jan Żabiński, only a small minority of the Jews sheltered by him and his wife resided in their house:
‘Many cages in the zoo had been emptied of animals during the September 1939 air assault on Warsaw, and Żabiński decided to utilize them as hiding places for fleeing Jews. Over the course of three years, hundreds of Jews found temporary shelter in these abandoned animal cells, located on the eastern bank of the Vistula River, until they were able to relocate to permanent places of refuge elsewhere.’
During the rebuilding of the zoo after the German surrender, Antonina paints yellow Stars of David on the bars of the cages – a touching but more easily palatable translation of the use that it seems was actually made of them in wartime. (In the film, the stars also echo the Jewish symbols and texts with which the younger lodgers have continued to cover the cellar walls during their stay. This ‘I woz here’ artwork seems incredible, in the clandestine circumstances.)
A mother and her daughter, whom Antonina helps disguise as Aryans and who leave the Żabińskis to live independently, are found out, tracked down and executed by the Germans. There are no other fatalities among the secret residents and this turns out not to be a case of soft-pedalling by Niki Caro and Angela Workman. A legend at the end of the film confirms that every one of the others whom the Żabińskis sought to save – some three hundred people all told – survived the War. In other respects, it’s clear that history has been ignored or distorted for the sake of dramatic conflict – to mostly counterproductive effect, because the result is so clichéd. Virtually the full load of Nazi evil is loaded onto the shoulders of Lutz Heck. It’s obvious from his very first appearance that, to make matters worse, he has lustful designs on Antonina. The marital tensions between her and Jan that result from Heck’s unwanted attentions are weakly realised: a rather silly scene in which Jan asserts his conjugal rights appears to explain Antonina’s pregnancy with the couple’s second child. When Jan, fighting for the Polish Resistance, is shot and taken prisoner, Antonina improbably appeals to Heck’s better nature, supposedly to try and discover her husband’s whereabouts but really to engineer a prolonged showdown with the villain of the piece.
The post-war scenes of reconstruction at the zoo echo the earthly paradise introduction and build to the required heartwarming big finish. The staff return and some of the Jewish guests stay on. This gives the impression of a quasi-commune but the happy family is incomplete: finally, the long-lost Jan reappears in the distance and Antonina rushes towards him and into his arms. Their reunion is emotionally stirring but, as a viewer, you also experience a sense of mission-accomplished relief: what’s more, you almost feel that Niki Caro is experiencing the same. Her approach seems to have infected the cast, most of whom give competent, somehow dutiful performances. In the lead, Jessica Chastain is highly accomplished but curiously uninvolving. One of the strongest presences on the screen is the physically extraordinary Shira Haas, as the young rape victim. (Along with the richly gifted Michael Aloni, Haas also provides the best moments of Shtisel, an engaging though exasperating Israeli television drama that Sally and I have recently been watching on box sets.)
27 April 2017
 For some examples of the film’s approach to historical accuracy, see http://culture.pl/en/article/the-zookeepers-wife-fact-vs-fiction.