I watched two movies about World War II last week, and both did an excellent job of bringing horrific experiences to life. I loved The Zookeeper’s Wife and appreciated but did not love Dunkirk. Some spoilers follow, although with both these movies being based on actual events, they are not really surprises. (Photos from IMDb.)
The Zookeeper’s Wife:
This movie, available on video-on-demand, is wonderfully acted and brings to life a story that is well worth watching. It is based on the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who ran the Warsaw Zoo. Over the course of the war, they courageously hid and helped an estimated 300 people to escape from Nazi-occupied Warsaw, with only two of that number being killed. The movie takes its story from the non-fiction book, The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, which in turn was based on Antonina Zabinska’s own diaries.
The film’s opening scenes are of the Zabinskis’ idyllic life together with their son and their animals, making the subsequent footage of the zoo being bombed so much more shocking. As the Nazi occupiers round up the people Jan grew up with and imprison them in the Warsaw Ghetto, he is at a loss to understand. As quoted on Biography.com, the real-life Jan said, “Many times I wished to analyze the causes for dislike for Jews and I could not find any, besides artificially formed ones.” With the zoo being shut down and turned into a pig farm, Jan is permitted to regularly go to the Ghetto to pick up food scraps to feed the pigs … while secretly smuggling Jewish people out beneath the scraps and smuggling pork back in to stave off the starvation of the inhabitants.
Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh gives a wonderfully understated performance as Jan Zabinski, conveying quiet courage in the face of the horrors he sees. We are there with him as he feels such helplessness in not being able to save everyone who is suffering. Jessica Chastain is excellent, playing Antonina Zabinska with such intensity of emotion that, again, we experience her desperation and her need to do whatever must be done to protect not only her family, but also the people that are hidden within both their zoo and their home. As a couple, their steady support for each other is clearly evident. Daniel Brühl is also very good as the Nazi zoologist, who has plans for experimental breeding of animals and who is smitten by Antonina.
I loved The Zookeeper’s Wife for the emotional realism and for its ability to show the horror of the persecution and killing of people, who after all are just people like their neighbours. I think that it is important to keep telling these stories, along with the stories of those who put themselves and their loved ones at grave risk to help others.
The best thing about this film is the cinematography, which is quite impressive on the big screen. It is more about the spectacle than about the few stories that are told or the characters. Writer/director Christopher Nolan focuses the movie on the evacuation of the soldiers trapped on the beach at Dunkirk early in World War II, surrounded by the enemy and without adequate resources to fight or flee. While the true events also had the French and other troops holding off the Nazi’s on the ground, the film is more focused on the efforts of the British in rescuing their soldiers.
In terms of the excellent camera work, some of it is almost like found footage, where we are jostled as if from the viewpoint of a soldier running with a stretcher carrying a wounded soldier. The filming from inside the fighter planes has us almost losing our bearings, not knowing which way is up or down as we feel in pursuit of the enemy planes. We sense the desperation of the soldiers, trapped down below as water rushes into their torpedoed ship or standing exposed on the narrow seawall with nowhere to hide as the bombs rain down upon them. Bringing the audience these experiences by sharing the viewpoint of the soldiers works really well.
What for me doesn’t work so well is the merging of three disparate timelines as if they were one. The group of young soldiers desperately trying to get off the beach takes place over one week. The small-boat owner and his companions travelling to aid in the rescue is of one day’s duration. Finally, the two or three fighter pilots doing all they can to shoot down the enemy planes bombing the beach is a story that lasts only an hour. And yet all three timelines are shown essentially simultaneously, with the focus cycling from one to the next as they all head towards the ultimate evacuation. This is just confusing, and I found myself trying to figure out why it was light one minute and dark the next or why the number of soldiers on the beach would shrink and then grow again.
Somehow also the focus in on these smaller stories serves to reduce the impact of the big story. It seems to show that only a few are rescued (when in fact it was more than 330,000) and that there are only two or three fighter pilots (when in fact there were many more). Speaking of the fighter pilots, their story trajectory is the most gripping of the three, with the heroic and somewhat clichéd derring-do that we are used to in a war movie. Tom Hardy is quite perfect in this role, although his dialogue is almost impossible to understand through his mask and goggles. Mark Rylance’s performance as the small-boat captain is fine, although there is not much there for him to sink his teeth into. Harry Styles of One Direction fame has cut off his trademark long hair to play one of the young soliers and does a very good job.
I suppose that Dunkirk will win awards and I certainly can appreciate the unique approach to a war movie, but it will not be my favourite movie of the year.
As an aside, while we were at the cinema watching Dunkirk, a loud argument broke out in the audience, apparently caused by seat-kicking! It got louder and louder with profanity and racial slurs thrown in (the participants were an Asian couple and an Indigenous couple). Soon, the film was paused, the lights went on, and the Cineplex folks came in to separate them. In the meantime, many in the audience steadily backed away and quickly left the cinema, apparently afraid of what might happen. The battle of words was soon under control, however, and the film was restarted several minutes back. The remaining audience was able to watch the last bit of the movie in peace.