Tuesday Talkback: The Zookeeper’s Wife

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In the most recent Tuesday Talkback, the SteelStacks audience and I considered Niki Caro’s 2017 Holocaust film, The Zookeeper’s Wife.  Based on real events, this movie tells the story of a Polish woman and her husband (Antonina and Jan Zabinski), who run a Warsaw zoo at the dawn of World War II.  When the Nazis bomb and invade Poland, their zoo is mostly destroyed and the animals left wandering the city until Hitler’s zoologist takes their best animals to Berlin and shoots the rest.  As Gentiles, they are permitted to keep their home, but they see their Jewish friends rounded up and forced into ghettos.  At first as a favor to a friend, and then out of a sense of moral duty, Jan and Antonina hide hundreds of Jewish citizens in the basement cells of their zoo over the course of the war.  In spite of the incredible risk of this undertaking, they work with the resistance movement, helping these refugees acquire forged documents so they can escape Nazi oppression under new identities.

Despite the film’s attention to the past, it remains an important work through which we can discuss our contemporary moment.  Like other historical films, whether they are Westerns, war pictures, musicals, or any other genre, the choice to tell that story in a particular moment may reveal something about the politics of the filmmakers and the concerns of the culture at large.  When I posed that question to the SteelStacks audience, they were mostly silent, either uncomfortable addressing it or maybe uncertain what to say.  One woman, who was helping her elderly mother up and on their way out, exclaimed, “Oh, you don’t want me to get started about Trump!”

Since she didn’t want to follow up her declaration with anything specific, I presented the audience with the director’s stated intention for her film.  In a March 27 interview with the film blog ScreenCrush, Niki Caro claimed that she wanted to make a “consciously feminine” Holocaust film: “[W]ar didn’t only happen to men, and so much of our cinema is based on the male experience of war.”

Although there have been some intriguing films focused on women in relation to the Holocaust—2014’s Phoenix and 2013’s Ida among them—the more fitting, and famous, analog to The Zookeeper’s Wife is Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993).  Both films tell the story of the Holocaust through a more narrow perspective of their protagonists’ successful efforts to save hundreds of Jews.  In each case, it’s an opportunity to experience a small sliver of hope in an otherwise devastating piece of world history.

I think Caro is right about the value of seeing this type of story from a woman’s perspective, not just because women don’t usually get the opportunity to be depicted in this kind of heroic role.  Although Antonina Zabinski is not portrayed as an armed fighter in the resistance, as her husband Jan would become, the film treats her less dramatic work with equal dignity and value.  In an especially poignant moment, she speaks with a traumatized, silent young Jewish girl hidden in one of the basement cells.  She gives her a pet rabbit, one of the few animals left in their former zoo, in an act of kindness which eventually helps the girl to experience joy and to engage with her fellow refugees.  The film reminds us of the importance of these small acts of kindness in making people feel human when an entire regime is built on the notion that they are not.       

What I found particularly compelling about this focus on Antonina was the precariousness of her situation.  Of course, anyone found to be hiding Jewish people from the Nazis would be killed, but she is operating from a far less stable position than her Spielbergian counterpart.  Schindler was a wealthy German businessman and a member of the Nazi Party.  Antonina Zabinski was a Polish woman who co-owned a former zoo-turned-pig farm which was occupied daily by Nazi soldiers.

Out of all the reasons for Antonina’s insecurity, the film places the greatest emphasis on her gender.  The title itself, The Zookeeper’s Wife, reminds us that she is defined in relation to, and possessed by, a man.  The Nazi zoologist challenges that possession, trying to seduce Antonina and ultimately attempting to sexually assault her.  The film places these acts on a continuum of dehumanization.  A regime devoted to the extermination of an entire ethnic and religious group would include men who also see women not as people, but as property to be taken, exploited, and discarded.   

As I think back to the talkback on The Zookeeper’s Wife, I find myself wondering what that woman from the audience would have said if she had decided to stay.  Films about the past can only do so much for us if we see them as merely past, recording what was and reinforcing what we already know.  These films can speak to us about the present if we’re willing to listen.  They challenge us to respond, to speak with one another, and to understand each other, even when we suspect that no one wants to hear it.  

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