There is no shortage of Holocaust stories that Hollywood wants to tell, and since they concern history’s ultimate “Never forget” horror, that is all well and good.
The risk, of course, is that the subject becomes trivialized, rendered trite and cute in the endless variations on a theme. There is merit in a “Boy in the Striped Pajamas” or “The Book Thief.” But does that overcome the inherent cuteness of the telling?
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” slams into that conundrum, a true story of Warsaw zookeepers who smuggled Jews out of the ghetto, into their hidden animal paddocks and out of the city during the darkest days of World War II.
But from the very title you can guess the problems. There are cute animals, tended to by a kind and gorgeous woman, played with earthy empathy by Jessica Chastain.
This could very well have slipped into “Here’s a movie that explains the Holocaust to children” genre, cuddly and kid-friendly. But director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider,” “McFarland, USA”) repeatedly jolts the viewer with graphic violence and almost comical sex, as if to say, “Thought this was for KIDS, didya?”
The result is a film with too many rough edges for kids, edges too polished and precious to connect with adults.
Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh are Antonina and Jan Zabinski, zookeepers of Poland’s most celebrated zoo. Jan is the scientist, respected by his peers. But Antonina is his Dr. Doolittle, “a magician” with animals. From the camel that follows her on her rounds to the lion cubs she lets sleep with their little boy (Timothy Radford), they adore her.
And when there’s trouble with an elephant calf’s birth, Antonina can be counted on to flee a dinner party, in party dress, to grapple with the calf and fend off the frightened, insistent and persistent trunk of the mother to save it.
That scene, by the way, is stunning — an actress literally wrestling with a trunk in the middle of a performance. Alarming, but no Oscar nominees were harmed in the making of this movie.
The warning signs are there for everyone in Warsaw, but Antonina refuses to let them flee. Instead, she subjects her family and her young son to the bombing of Warsaw and the slaughter of the animals in their charge.
This subjects the audience to this horror as well. And that’s just the beginning.
Caro and crew treat us to a lightly sanitized version of the forced starvation and mass murder of the Jews of Warsaw, with the intrepid Zabinski’s figuring out a way to keep their zoo useful to the Nazis (it becomes a pig farm) and use it to hide refugees they help escape.
The victims are a saintly collection of the wronged and innocent — friends, children, a girl who has just been raped. Only that girl (Shira Haas) has enough of a character to play to make an impression.
Daniel Brühl of “Rush” is the generic smooth-talking Nazi zookeeper they have to fool, a “Good German” who only wants to “protect their breeding stock,” but who has eyes for Antonina, something she uses to keep the family’s secret.
The genetically obsessed German drags Antonina into his buffalo breeding experiment, a rutting/mating, bumping and grinding metaphor so laughable and obvious that you feel for Chastain and wonder why she didn’t veto this idiotic scene. The movie has sexual elements that feel frankly out of place, simply here to escape that “Children’s Movie about the Holocaust” label.
Historically, the ghetto and the war feel sanitized and the villainous Soviets are let off the hook, almost entirely. Dramatically, Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman serve up a couple of whoppers in between the standard tropes of the genre.
The players effect faint Polish accents, but Chastain is such a soulful actress that this wasn’t a bother. It’s not her most emotional performance, however. She’s too caught up playing an icon on a pedestal to make the polymath Antonina frightened, desperate to save lives.
There’s little tension, little sense of the suffering even if we understand the stakes.
The best you can say about the whole enterprise is that it’s a righteous story, clumsily told.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl
Credits:Directed by Niki Caro, script by Angela Workman, based on the Diane Ackerman book. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 2:04