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The Zookeeper’s Wife reveals the many dilemmas of the Holocaust film

Two decades ago, after the appearance of the Steven Spielberg Holocaust drama Schindler's List, debate flared about the ethics of a Hollywood blockbuster featuring a Nazi profiteer who saves 1,100 Jewish workers. As Stanley Kubrick reportedly said, cutting Schindler's heroics in half: "The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't." The film did make it abundantly clear what was happening to the people who weren't saved, but the argument against Schindler's List was more broadly philosophical than narrowly critical: Is the righteous gentile a legitimate subject? Should the Holocaust be fictionalized?

Twenty-three years after Schindler's List won best picture at the Academy Awards, it seems unlikely there will be any such fuss about The Zookeeper's Wife, another popular story of a gentile who rescues Polish Jews. As Jessica Chastain's Antonina Zabinski welcomes terrorized escapees from the ghetto into the basement of her villa at the Warsaw Zoo, she does so for an audience so saturated in Hollywood's Holocaust tropes it seems unlikely to be moved – either to tears over the story or to outrage over the movie. The Star of David armbands, the cattle cars, even the potentially haunting but oft-repeated motif of ash floating through the air after the ghetto has been torched; these images are so familiar they risk losing their power as art.

And that, in turn, means that using them as art risks diminishing their importance as history. The ethics of making movies about the Holocaust seem to have gotten lost somewhere in the umpteenth tracking shot of a downtrodden crowd shuffling eastward with battered suitcases and dirty bundles.

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This overuse poses a particular dilemma for a director such as Niki Caro as she crafts a sentimental drama from Diane Ackerman's non-fiction book about Antonina and her husband, Jan Zabinski, director of the Warsaw Zoo. Dwell too long on the familiar tropes, and you turn historical horror into cinematic cliché; pass too quickly over them and you risk trading shamelessly on an audience's foreknowledge of the subject. In The Zookeeper's Wife, the heroic Jan smuggles Jews out of the ghetto with disconcerting ease, supposedly risking discovery at every turn and yet always escaping it. It's not Caro's direction or Angela Workman's paint-by-numbers script that is building suspense here, but the audience's own dread of what it knows lies beyond these scenes. The film is exploiting history rather than revealing it.

That is not to say that you can't make movies about the Holocaust that successfully serve both art and history. The Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes brought a bracing lack of sentimentality to his 2015 drama Son of Saul, a film about one member of the Sonderkommandos, the Jewish work units that were forced to fill and empty the crematoriums at Auschwitz. By narrowly focusing his camera on the perspective of a single character, by exposing an aspect of the concentration camps that is little understood and by examining the nature of survival, Nemes created a film that is both successfully cinematic and highly ethical. Similarly, Roman Polanksi's The Pianist (2002) concentrated on the experience of a single victim, subtly positioning his music as a source not of outright survival but of potential sustenance, the proverbial thing worth living for.

Both Saul (a fictional character who does not ultimately survive) and Wladyslaw Szpilman (a real person who did) are individual victims fully humanized through art. But if the goal instead is to lionize rescuers, a director, writer and actor will need some perceptive things to say about that brand of heroism. One of the frustrating aspects of The Zookeeper's Wife is that the title character is inconsistently observed, both by Chastain and by the script. In her early scenes, Antonina is intriguingly portrayed as a woman capable of playing midwife to an elephant yet incapable of cocktail-party chitchat, but any complications in her personality are swiftly abandoned as she takes on the dual roles required by the plot, playing angel of mercy to the Jews stuck in her basement and reluctant siren to the local Nazi commander.

The story of Oskar Schindler starts with a distinct advantage: the man was a manipulative reprobate, and one thing genuinely intelligent about Spielberg's film and Liam Neeson's performance is how his self-serving, bon-vivant, seduce-the-world personality gradually expands to include his Jewish employees in its embrace. His final conversion to humanitarianism is too abrupt and sentimental to be sure; nonetheless, Schindler's List excels as a character study.

Nobody could say that about The Zookeeper's Wife, but the movie does have many winsome animals on offer and that, of course, is its hook. Yet there again, the film's historical subject is a minefield. The movie features some catchy early scenes showing Antonina doing her morning rounds with a young camel at her heels and escaped animals roaming Warsaw's empty streets after a German bombing raid – before local citizens carefully return them to the zoo. But as soon as the Germans occupy Warsaw, the animals are all shipped off to Berlin for "safekeeping." As war rages, the beasts need to vacate both the zoo and the film: Morally, how much can you ask an audience to dwell on the suffering of exotic animals when six million people are being slaughtered off camera? Trapped in this paradox, The Zookeeper's Wife does what it must and loses its chief attraction in the process.

Instead, the film moves forward with what has become a predictable human story. In all its ghetto scenes, there is only one image that registers as something both subtle and original: one brief street scene captures a small vignette in the background as a smiling passerby poses for a photo outside the ghetto gates – just as you might pose in front of the elephant's enclosure at the zoo. For a fleeting moment, The Zookeeper's Wife rises toward the complicated art that can make a Holocaust drama defensible before it sinks back into what has become a dubious historical genre.

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