Film review of The Zookeepers Wife

May 14, 2017

This film review of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 4 May 2017

Directed by Niki Caro; written by Angela Workman, based on the book by Diane Ackerman; starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl and Michael McElhatton

****

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a notable film about Jewish survival, but is not a film about Jews. Based on a true story of a non-Jewish Polish married couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo at the outbreak of the Second World War, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” – adapted from the book by Diane Ackerman – is one of a growing number of dramatic films that tell the stories of Righteous Gentiles (think “Schindler’s List” and “Irena Sendler”).

The film opens in summer of 1939; an idyllic “Belle Epoque” Warsaw Zoo appears like a Garden of Eden, with strange animals running after their almost-rapturous keepers, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty” & “Interstellar”) and Jan Zabinski (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh), accompanied by their contemplative young son Ryszard. The Zabinskis love their animals, and New Zealand director Niki Caro does an extraordinary job of showing human-zoo animal intimate interactions, such as healing a sick young elephant (if it was special effects, I couldn’t tell).

The peaceful retreat doesn’t last. When the Germans attack Poland and bomb Warsaw, the zoo is decimated and lives are changed forever. The narrative is familiar: the Nazi occupation, attacks on the local Jewish population and development of the Warsaw Ghetto.

But what happens next is a first for Holocaust screen stories: Antonina and Jan grow a plan to slip Jews out of the ghetto and hide them in a labyrinth of tunnels and cellars at the zoo, creating an “underground railroad”. The pretext is raising pigs (the “treif” juxtaposition is not explored) for food by using ghetto garbage. A sub-plot involves the Nazi Director of the Berlin Zoo, Dr Lutz Heck (German actor Daniel Bruhl) attracted to Antonina. Other notable historical figures appear, including Dr Janusz Korczak, who ran a famous orphanage in the ghetto.

The film has a convincing production design (shot in Prague), fabulous animals and strong acting from the principals, especially Chastain, who rivals Meryl Streep (“Sophie’s Choice”) with her Polish accent. Despite its strong Holocaust and war themes, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” does feel tame at times; it’s rated “M” (“not recommended for children under 15”). Most violence and killing, including the animals, happens off-screen. This “soft pitch” film-making shouldn’t give nightmares, but does undermine the dramatic impact of what is still a great story.

(above: Johan Heldenbergh outside the set of the Warsaw Zoo)

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Film review of Woman in Gold

May 22, 2015

(This review of “Woman in Gold” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 May 2015.)

Directed by Simon Curtis; Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell; Starring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance and Antje Traue

With its wide historical sweep and Holocaust theme, the new dramatic film “Woman in Gold” is the first big Jewish film of 2015. This re-creation of the true story of how Viennese Jewish refuge Maria Altmann reclaimed her family’s Nazi stolen art is told from the perspective of E. Randol (“Randy”) Schoenberg, the American Jewish lawyer who took up her cause. The film ranges from early twenty-first century Los Angeles back in time to the 1920s – when Gustav Klimt painted a commission of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer – and ahead to the 1938 Nazi takeover of Austria, finally concluding in 2006.

Directed by Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”), “Woman in Gold” stars Helen Mirren as Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as Schoenberg, who risks his professional career on the outcome of the case. As the grandson of the great Austrian-Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, he had a strong personal interest in the fate of Austrian Jews and a long-time family connection with Altmann.

High production values add enormously to the impact of “Woman in Gold”. The classically defined nineteenth century architecture of Vienna nicely contrasts with the bland modern Los Angeles (which Randy Schoenberg describes as one of his grandfather Arnold’s “three great hates”) where Altmann and Schoenberg live.

“Woman of Gold” succeeds despite a pedestrian script (by first-timer Alexi Kaye Campbell), which frequently insists on “telling” the audience how characters feel, rather than showing us. Maria’s proclamation that, “I have to do what I can to keep the memories alive. Because people forget, especially the young. And then there’s justice”, feels stilted and predictable. There is too little mystery and little left to our imagination. We see scenes of Jews being forced to scrub sidewalks in 1938 Vienna, and of men having their beards cut off. Check and check. The problem is that we have seen these scenes before, all told in more affecting ways.

With no doubt about the film’s inevitable resolution, the main characters’ internal journeys needed to be made larger than life, in order to give us, the viewers, a reason to care about their fate. There was strong Austrian opposition to Altmann’s claims, concern that they would lose their national “Mona Lisa”.

Yet despite these faults, “Woman of Gold” works, in large part because of some exceptional performances, with Helen Mirren superbly personifying Maria. (This is Mirren’s third Jewish role, having played Ayn Rand in a 1999 telemovie and – most notably – the character of Rachel Singer in the Israeli spy drama “The Debt”.)

Ryan Reynolds bears a physical similarity to Schoenberg and performs strongly in an underwritten role that never quite illustrates the deep doubts, concerns and personal risks he most likely felt. The third key performance is by German actor Daniel Brühl, who does a great job in the role of the late Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin, who helped to uncover the false ownership claims of the Klimt paintings.

“Woman in Gold” also achieves a high level of verisimilitude in its use of language. Unlike many English language films that are partly set in Europe – including notable Holocaust dramas such as “Schindler’s List” – these on-screen actors speak German on screen (with subtitles) when their characters are meant to. This effect is important, because an underlying theme of “Woman of Gold” is not only personal and financial loss, but the cultural dissociation connected with becoming refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria – a loss that included the German language and culture that so nurtured the assimilated and successful Viennese Jews.

There are many other wonderful touches in “Woman in Gold”, including an exquisite re-creation of Adele Bloch-Bauer (played by German actress Antje Traue), Maria Altmann’s aunt. Klimt (played by Moiritz Bleibtreu) also makes an appearance, as does Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder (son of Estée, and played by British actor Ben Miles), who ultimately purchases the painting of Adele for his Neue Gallery in New York City. Katie Holmes plays Schoenberg’s wife Pam, Max Irons (son of Jeremy) plays Maria’s young husband Frederick, Charles Dance plays the boss of Schoenberg’s law firm and Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce appear as American judges.

More than any recent mainstream feature film, “Woman in Gold” shows how we Jews regard ourselves as one connected family. As one of the characters proclaims, this is “a moment in history in which the past is asking the present” to make amends. Altmann and Schoenberg were driven in part by the great responsibility to honour the generations that came before them.

With the stunning Klimt painting at the heart of this story, it is tailor-made for film. Although the story has already been told in three documentaries, “The Rape of Europa” (2006), “Adele’s Wish” (2008) and especially “Stealing Klimt” (2007), this is the first dramatic feature. Last year’s “Monuments Men” with George Clooney covered similar ground, but “Woman of Gold” is far superior in tone, style and substance.

Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer

(above: Gustav Klimt’s painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer)