In Niki Caro’s adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, the protagonist listens in fascination and horror, as Lutz Heck—a German zoologist, director of the Berlin and Munich zoos and avid game hunter—describes tracking a lioness in the wild and shooting it. It is 1939, and Antonina Żabińska (played by Jessica Chastain) lives in the grounds of the zoo she ran with her husband in Warsaw before the outbreak of World War Two. A man who would become a friend of Herman Göring, Heck is simply an intriguing guest and fellow zoologist and the Żabińskis his mild-mannered hosts. Thus begins a story of brutality and one woman’s response to it in what is truly the first feminist holocaust movie.
As a genre, holocaust movies tend to be tragically grand, delicate and sometimes sentimental. From Alain Resnais’s 1956 Night and Fog and Marcel Ophüls’s 1969 The Sorrow and the Pity to later films—Claude Lanzman’s Shoah, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, and László Nemes’s Son of Saul—holocaust movies have focused on the human stain of cruelty, the hell of concentration camps, the sheer number of people murdered by Hitler’s death machine, on the nearly senseless luck of the sole survivor, and the courage of those few who dared to do good the face of systematized hatred. Resnais gave us unbearable images of bulldozers pushing heaps of emaciated bodies into pits; Spielberg ended his movie with a scene of Schindler’s survivors and descendants, accompanied by the actors who played them, laying stones on his grave.
The genre has evolved to become much like that of the Western. Many holocaust films have been male-driven and even macho stories of murder, and existential resistance and survival (think of The Counterfeiters or Defiance). Men are either the perpetrators of atrocities or saviors. But what about women?
Niki Caro breaks out of the genre and emerges with a truly moving and original film. She uses the familiar structure of survival and rescue, but her focus is on the mechanics of cruelty itself in an unlikely setting. The zoo in Warsaw had been a place both of science but also of domestic bliss, and a site of peaceful family leisure. Caro shows that cruelty to innocents—women, children and, indeed, animals—was essential to mass cruelty and murder. When Heck shoots the zoo’s prize eagle, he seems pleased, and in front of the horrified and powerless Żabińskis, he tells his men to have it stuffed to decorate his office.
A man who kills the captive animals he
is supposed to protect as a zoologist is capable of further atrocities. Heck
threatens to kill Żabińska’s young son and is only stopped when she appeals to
his ego. These individual acts of brutality force us to ask: How do we respond
to the sexual assault of women, children and the murder of animals, in the
context of a movie about the largest program of mass killing humanity has ever
seen? For the slaughter of animals and the rape of women and children were not
explicit policies of genocide, but were rather implicit and silently sanctioned
steps on the road to the grandest of atrocities.
The story of Polish zookeepers saving Jews is based on the lives of the noted zoologist and Polish resistance fighter Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina, keepers of the zoo during the German Occupation, holocaust and Polish resistance. Zabińska kept a diary during the war, describing how they saved and cared for more than 300 Jews from Warsaw’s ghetto, using their empty zoo and its system of cellars, tunnels and cages as a hiding place under the noses of the Nazis—an account that Ackerman popularized in her 2007 book. Israel honored the Żabińskis for their courage as Righteous Ones at Yad Vashem in 1965.
But this is not a Schindleresque tale of hiding grateful Jews and counting them, even if that is inevitably part of the story. Caro casts Chastain as a beautiful elven queen ruling over an enchanted forest. Both frail and fine, her character is also staggeringly (and convincingly) powerful and nearly preternaturally gentle. At first, the setting—real as it was—might seem absurd, as camels, elephants and eagles make the Warsaw zoo seem more like Narnia than Nazi-occupied Poland. But very quickly, this magical world darkens as the Żabińskis’ Jewish friends begin to come to them for help and hiding as the Nazis drive them into the horror of the Warsaw ghetto.
Perhaps it is because the genre of the holocaust film has become tired, or because we live in a world so bathed in violent images, that our society is no longer inspired to vigilance by the dangers of our own resurgent and popular neo-fascism. But Caro snaps us out of the world we know, by announcing the arrival of the Nazi horror with the killing of the zoo’s most beautiful animals. If many have become inured to human violence in movies, violence towards animals is less familiar. Instead of seeing Jews murdered in the ghetto, we get Nazis shooting camels and elephants.
And when she has our attention, Caro then re-focuses our gaze to her husband Jan witnessing the rape of a young girl, Ursula, by two Nazi soldiers in the ghetto. This scene, which is hard to bear, is not about mass killing, but about sexual violence. Rape and the assault of children are horrors seen in war and genocide at all levels—but it is a topic most avoided by films about the holocaust. Even in the context of mass killing, it is simply too horrible to witness. And yet Caro shows us that we must reckon with this reality and she makes it part of her larger narrative. As the soldiers prey on Ursula, Lutz Heck (who has now been promoted to “Hitler’s personal zoologist”) has returned now as Żabińska’s predator. The gentle zookeeper’s wife is harassed and even attacked by Heck as he also murders her animals. The dream world of the zoo becomes a nightmare.
There is something uncomfortably timely about this unlikely story. Although we are horrified by these brutal acts in a movie, Americans are still willing to turn a blind eye to violence against women or cruelty to animals, as we saw in the last election. When Donald Trump was accused of sexual harassment, or when he tried to physically intimidate Hillary Clinton during the debates, his image was not harmed but actually boosted by the display of masculine aggression. Others more familiar with Trump family lore will remember the nauseating hunting photos of his sons standing proudly over their dead quarry of leopards and water buffalo. Although it was shot before Trump ever seemed a realistic candidate, The Zookeeper’s Wife depicts the menace of machismo not just in public but also in private life. Domestic violence, Caro shows, is not only the prelude to horror, but also its crescendo.
Having experienced the political power of sexual aggression in the US election cycle, what we know is that the path to authoritarian government and mass murder is paved with crimes often overshadowed by the drama of mass death. The Zookeeper’s Wife shows that the Holocaust was not an easy existential battle fought between a massive evil machine and good, tough men. It was also made up of unrecorded domestic crimes, often of sexual aggression and abuse. What Caro makes clear is that a society that overlooks these transgressions is in dangerous territory. In attempting to understand these crimes and how to counter them, Caro challenges us to look closer to home, into the finer grain of the horror.