The release of The Zookeeper’s Wife this past weekend proves yet again that shedding light on a dark time in history can make quite the blockbuster. Without a doubt, the Holocaust was a seemingly improbable, cringeworthy saga. Awkward to acknowledge yet impossible to forget, it’s bloodcurdling to think of a time when humans could round up other humans in an attempt to gas them out of existence.
Perhaps even more astonishing is that there was no plausible reason behind such atrocities as this. For other historic blunders such as colonization or slavery, at least there were excuses to be made (I guess). The Nazis simply told the Jews that they didn’t deserve to live.
I’m not sure what it is about a story from the World War II era that really pulls me in. Nevertheless, there’s a certain beauty in reading about it or watching it come to life. I realize it seems like an aberrant oxymoron to call anything from that time in Poland or Germany “refined.” However, the stories from those dark periods are filled with hope in the face of such seemingly insurmountable horror. Jews still clung to music, art, and the little things that it wouldn’t seem possible to care about during such a time. Perhaps it was the Diary of Anne Frank that won me over; I was the same age as Anne when I read the book, which is probably why I was able to identify with her so easily.
In fact, there have been countless books to surface about stories such as these: The Book Thief, Number the Stars, All the Light We Cannot See, and Monument Men, just to name a few. Maybe the most well-known of them all is Schindler’s Ark, better known in the U.S. as Schindler’s List. Despite all the true accounts of these stories told through literature and cinema, there are some people who remain in denial of the reality of these events, some are still in disbelief of them ever happening. It seems idiotic. Well, it is idiotic. One benefit of the doubt I will give to some is that perhaps it’s just too terrible to believe that humans could have been that inhumane and gotten away with it. Then again, nobody really denies slavery or colonization. (Give that some time to sink in, why don’t you.) They do however think that people should “just get over it.” But that’s another article.
Despite this infuriating sense of denial, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary that is indisputable. Not only are there are actual videos created by the Nazis themselves, which document the grotesque happenings, there are diary entries and first-person accounts from those involved and from those who suffered through it. In all likelihood, the stories are engrossing because of the hope they can promote. No matter the struggle, the people (or characters) in these stories aspire others to push onward. During other despairing moments in history, the condemned are made to deal with those conditions in hopes that better things will come for the next generation.
There are over 59 Holocaust memorials and museums in the U.S. alone. Part of the reason I embrace these stories is because it gives a voice to marginalized narratives, and sends a message to the unbeknownst. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a work that fits well into the Holocaust puzzle. Author Diane Ackerman referenced personal diary entries by heroine Antonina Zabinski (played by Jessica Chastain in the film) to write the 2007 bestseller of the same name.
Apart from Zabinski’s apparent love of animals in the book, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a poetic tale. Both Zabinski and her husband used their zoo to preserve humanity when people were being otherwise treated like animals, simply for being Jewish. The irony in that as surreal as it is tragic, but Ackerman’s poetic twist to the novel makes it all the more endearing.
Director Niki Caro has been heralded for the strong strides her work has made for women in the industry. The Zookeeper’s Wife is arguably the first feminist-forward Holocaust film. The film didn’t come without its criticism though, seeing as the most stirring scenes involved the lead character and not Jews or Nazis. It’s arguable that it’s her story being told.
However, another central figure in both the film and in history, Zabinski’s husband, Jan Zabinski (portrayed by Johan Heldenbergh), does his part as well. Jan was a lieutenant in the Polish Resistance, and he did all he could to thwart the Nazi’s progress regularly. Yet critics have opined that the movie seemed to gloss over these aspects, deeming them inadequate were it not for Chastain “rescuing” the film with a shuddering performance.
It would make sense that Caro might want this to be a different type of Holocaust film. In the same vein as last year’s Race, I felt Caro’s intent was to keep with the ugliness of the era and but still pretty and consumable for a wider audience. Since there are a plethora of films, museums and such consecrated to the events that took place, I personally don’t believe it’s the film’s responsibility to represent everything about that time in history. If an event prompts a person to do research then I think that’s a good place to start.
As for me, I’m going to go into The Zoo Keepers Wife with steely tear ducts, and heartstrings ready to be tugged.