The story of Jan and Antonina Zabinska and Jan Zabinski is a powerful and fascinating one. Part of the Polish underground resistance network during the Second World War, the couple managed to help upwards of 300 Polish Jews, escape the Warsaw Ghetto and imminent death, all within the confines and setup of the zoo they managed (As shown in The Zookeeper’s Wife).
To be sure, if you were a creative type, there is plenty there to work with. Indeed, director Niki Caro did a terrific job with this sort of story before. One celebrating the ingenuity, unity and compassion of the human spirit amongst dark times and horrors, in 2002’s Whale Rider and 2005’s North County.
Unfortunately, Caro has misjudged the scenery enormously. The Zookeeper’s Wife, the film of the Antonina and Jan’s incredible deeds Nazi occupied Poland, is certainly well made, with excellent cinematography and noble intentions but it ends up as Schindler’s List for kids. All colour cinematography and lots of adorable animals and “aaawwww” moments with Jessica Chastain as displaying Antonina’s gift of empathy with animals.
Such cutesiness sanitises the film completely and sanitizing one of the worst atrocities in human history for the sake of popcorn entertainment leaves a sour taste in the mouth and removes any sense of dramatic peril that is apparently important in a drama.
It is shame that it reduces itself to the level of a cynical Hollywood executive because Caro’s intentions are noble, much of that nobility though, derives from Angela Workman’s screenplay. A screenplay that demonstrates to us the slow and disturbingly easy creep towards genocide, via the character of zoologist Lutz Heck, played by Daniel Bruhl, easily the best thing in the whole film.
Heck, a seemingly benevolent but arrogant expert from Berlin, becomes a zealous follower of Nazi ideology, attempting to apply eugenics to animal breeding to further his own standing and career.
In the current political climate, Bruhl’s portrayal of Heck is quite chilling. A reminder that many who participated in ethnic cleansing, genocide, destructive wars and state suicide were not all foaming-at-the-mouth, racists, sporting skinheads, bad tattoos or wearing sinister eye patches but seemingly normal people.
However, everything else in the film seems so utterly out of step with Bruhl’s performance, or that of Iddo Goldberg (The Red Tornado in Supergirl) who plays Maurycy Fraenkel, a friend of Antonina and Jan saved from the Ghettos. Goldberg’s weary haunted demeanour deserved a better film than this.
Then, there is the issue of accents. It may well be something that escapes the tin ears of us Brits or Americans, but its hard to not to be incredibly irritated by Chastain’s attempt at a Polish accent. It isn’t quite up there Ewan McGregor’s absolute corker in Angels and Demons or Christopher Lambert’s legendary Scottish clansman via Normandy but it’s still poor.
At times, it resembles every idiot mate’s attempt at a generic Eastern European accent after watching Borat. In 2017, with lots of terrific foreign language film’s permeating the conscience of mainstream, Western audiences there is increasingly little excuse for this anymore. Just do the film in the native language with subtitles or drop the accent. It is only a further negative that removes from the seriousness of the subject matter.
All in all, The Zoopkeeper’s Wife isn’t a bad film. It is well made, looks good, has a solid screenplay and some strong performances. But The Holocaust for Kids, is cynical, frivolous and in bad taste.