At a preview screening of The Zookeeper's Wife, which opens this weekend, the film opened with a special message from star Jessica Chastain on behalf of the International Rescue Committee. In a close-up, speaking directly to the camera, Chastain compares the rescue of Jews in World War II with the rescue of refugees today. She ends on an inspirational note: In times of suffering, she says, "the best of humanity rises." The Holocaust was a terrible tragedy, this suggests, but also a moral opportunity. In the fire of violence and hatred, petty concerns are burned away, leaving an irreducible core of virtue.
Whose virtue, though? In the film, directed by Niki Caro and based on the 2007 book by Diane Ackerman, Chastain plays real-life hero Antonina Żabińska. Żabińska was a Polish zookeeper who, along with her husband Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh), helped Jews escape Poland during the Nazi occupation by hiding them in their basement. And, as in the iconic Holocaust film Schindler's List (1993), the moral triumph of The Zookeeper's Wife is a moral triumph for gentiles.
Jews in this movie are victims; they serve as the occasion for virtuous action. Onscreen, Jews shed a tear here and there; they stare admiringly at Chastain; they hand her a locket as a token of their esteem and gratitude. Collectively, the Jews in the film barely speak. They are mute witnesses to the best of humanity — the best of humanity, here, meaning "gentiles."
The gentile savior trope is not new, and it is related to that familiar staple, the white savior. In stories about injustice and violence against people of color, Hollywood (and not just Hollywood) almost always focuses on the iconic #NotAllWhitePeople white person. In A Dry White Season (1989) — by black director Euzhan Palcy — superstar Donald Sutherland plays a South African former sports star who uses his influence and his noble heart to expose the brutalization of black people by the regime. In Spielberg's Amistad (1997), the great white man John Quincy Adams, played by superstar Anthony Hopkins, uses his forensic talents and his crusty, noble heart to rescue a crew full of black Africans. In 12 Years a Slave (2013), superstar Brad Pitt uses his Northern connections and his open, noble heart to arrange for the rescue of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Northern free black man sold into slavery. In each case, recognizable white Hollywood icons demonstrate their seriousness and nobility by gracing debased victims with their pity and attention. The suffering of black people becomes a chance for white virtue to shine.
Today, light-skinned Jews are generally considered white in the United States and Europe. But Hitler didn't consider Jews to be white. According to his eugenic theories, Jews and Germans were separate races — and The Zookeeper's Wife, and Holocaust stories like it, uncomfortably tend to follow Hitler's lead, at least to the extent that they place Jews in the victim role that’s generally reserved for black or brown people in white-savior narratives.
Whiteness is agency and moral action; Holocaust victims have neither.
Whiteness is not so much a skin color, it turns out, as a narrative position. And in narratives that fall into this pattern, people who are stigmatized, oppressed, or targeted are weak and debased; whiteness acts upon them, for good or ill. Whiteness is agency and moral action; Holocaust victims have neither. There are white saviors, and there are the nonwhite saved. Holocaust victims, whatever their skin color, fall into the second category.
Just as stories of oppressed black people often focus on white saviors, then, stories about the Holocaust focus with remarkable frequency on the heroic actions of non-Jews. Schindler's List (1993), by Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg, is probably the single most famous and critically acclaimed Holocaust narrative in American culture. It tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member and German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jewish people from the Holocaust. The Book Thief (2013) is about Germans who shelter a Jewish man. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) is about the son of an Auschwitz commander who befriends a Jewish boy in the camp — as is the 2006 young adult novel it's based on. And Lois Lowry's Newbery Medal-winning book Number the Stars (1989), which holds roughly the same position in young adult literature that Schindler's List does in film, focuses on the story of Annemarie, a Christian 10-year-old in Denmark who wants to help her Jewish friend.
In an introduction written for the book's 20-year anniversary, Lowry explains that she wanted the book to help her readers explore morality. "I think readers of every age match themselves against the protagonists of books they love," she notes. "Would I have done that? they ask themselves, as they follow a fictional character through a novel. What choice would I have made?"
As Lowry inadvertently suggests, in gentile savior stories it is always non-Jews who make the most important moral choices. Annemarie's friend Eleanor, and Jewish children who might identify with her, don't get to ask, "Would I have done that?" They just go where the gentiles point them and hope for the best. The Holocaust was a genocide of Jewish people, but in these narratives it is never a story about Jewish heroism, or Jewish heroes. The moral choices that matter belong to someone else.
You could argue that the moral choices of people with power are important, and that gentile savior stories serve an important function in educating and guiding those who have the capacity to act. They model what you are supposed to do when the persecuted suffer; they at least aspire to teach solidarity. Number the Stars doesn't just encourage readers to ask, "What choice would I have made?" — it tells them that the right choice is to treat Jews, and other marginalized people, as neighbors and friends to whom one has a moral obligation.
As Jessica Chastain reminds audiences at the beginning of The Zookeeper's Wife, refugees all over the world need help now. The story of Antonina Żabińska should spur viewers, in the present day, to protest anti-refugee policies and to help those in need. But are these stories really providing moral guidance, or just glib reassurance?
Are these stories really providing moral guidance, or just glib reassurance?
Gentile savior narratives make it not just easy, but too easy to identify with the courageous exceptions. In The Zookeeper's Wife, Antonina Żabińska is played by one of the most beautiful people on the planet. Chastain is earnest, courageous, vivacious, brilliant, bold. Of course, if you had a choice, you would be her, defy the Nazis, and save the children. There's no question — and, in the film, no contrast. We don't meet Polish collaborators; Antonina is scared through most of the film that her cook will turn her in, but when given the chance, said cook turns out to be as altruistic as all the other Polish gentiles. No one in all of Poland seems to have ever harbored an anti-Semitic thought before the Nazis arrived.
The main villain of The Zookeeper's Wife is not a Pole, but German Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, in a variation on his nice-guy Nazi role from Inglourious Basterds). Heck is a historical figure; he had authority over the Żabińskis' zoo, and stole some of their animals for Germany, while killing others. Diane Ackerman's book describes him as "a zookeeper who didn't mind killing animals in someone else's zoo if it meant ingratiating himself with powerful friends." That seems bad enough.
But in the film, Heck is transformed from a mundane bureaucratic bully into a malevolent Jew-hunter, predatory sexual harasser, and sadist. Onscreen, Heck pretends to shoot Antonina's son Rys, terrorizing her. The whole sequence has no basis in reality; it's just added for gratuitous drama and catharsis.
In the film, the Żabińskis are saints; the Nazi antagonists are monsters. The moral choice is clear. In fact, it's so clear that it starts to obfuscate the issues. Movies like this train us to expect fascists to look like supervillains, like the onscreen Heck. But fascists in real life are often more like the real Heck — casually cruel and self-interested, rather than chewing up the scenery, screaming, "I'm evil!"
Similarly, anti-fascists aren't necessarily movie-star stunning and virtuous. For that matter, those needing help are not always so thoroughly harmless, helpless, or grateful. The gentile savior trope makes moral decisions easy. And thinking that moral decisions are easy can make it harder to do the right thing when the choices are messier — as, in real life, they inevitably are.
Gentile savior narratives don't just give the Holocaust a neat moral of the story; they also tend to give it a happy ending. The Zookeeper's Wife ends, inevitably, with white text on a black screen, telling viewers that the Żabińskis saved 300 Jews, and that they were declared Righteous Among the Nation by Israel.
Every life saved is precious, and there's good reason to honor the Żabińskis and those like them. But it seems wrong that the stories that define popular understanding of the Holocaust — like Schindler's List and Number the Stars — are so determinedly about victory and healing. For most Jews caught up in it, the Holocaust was not a story of gentile saviors and triumph. It was a story of gentile murderers, lost loved ones, pain, sorrow, and death.
The conclusion of The Zookeeper's Wife is a celebration; old friends, Jews and gentiles alike, reunite on the grounds of the zoo, determined to rebuild. The Żabińskis' act of faith and virtue has symbolically restored the moral order. By saving 300 people, Antonina shows that the murder of 6 million was an aberration. Savior stories show that gentiles are good people, and that the world is, ultimately, a good place, in which people act with kindness. The Holocaust was a rupture, they say, but it is behind us. Since it gave us so many powerful moral lessons, and allowed the best in humanity to rise, maybe we're even ultimately better for it.
We need more Holocaust narratives that are difficult rather than glib, and ugly rather than beautiful.
There are certainly well-known narratives about the Holocaust that aren’t framed as feel-good inspiration for gentiles. Art Spiegelman’s classic comic book Maus, about his father’s experiences in the camps, is focused on Jewish struggle for survival; gentile rescuers have only a walk-on role, and the ending is not particularly uplifting.
Maus is critically lauded; the same cannot be said for Liliana Cavani's infamous and intensely uncomfortable 1974 Nazisploitation film The Night Porter. The Night Porter is set in a Viennese hotel, where a former concentration camp guard (Dirk Bogarde) runs into Luca (Charlotte Rampling), a woman he tortured and raped in the camp. The two pick up their S&M-tinged relationship where they left off, while they are stalked for obscure reasons by Max's former friends and fellow Nazis. The film suggests that Luca’s healing, and her escape from trauma, was all a lie. No one was saved; Nazi atrocity didn't end. Trauma doesn't heal, but repeats itself.
I wouldn't say we need more Holocaust movies like The Night Porter, which doesn't lend itself to imitation anyway. But I do think we need more Holocaust narratives that are difficult rather than glib, and ugly rather than beautiful. At a time when nationalism and race- and religion-based hatred is ascendant, solidarity with the oppressed is important. But so is clarity about the stakes, and an understanding of what can be lost, and what has already been lost.
The Holocaust is not a story meant to show us that "the best in humanity rises." Sometimes people do good things in the face of evil, but evil doesn't create good. Jews don't die to show that gentiles are good people. If we can't see marginalized people as the protagonists of their own stories, then, unlike Antonina Żabińska, we will never see them as fully human.
The protagonist of Schindler's List is Oskar Schindler; an earlier version of this piece misstated his first name.