Anderson: You say it’s a story written by an antisemite about a man who thinks, walks, acts like a rat and catches rats for a living? Contact Christoph Waltz.
– He’s not interested.
Anderson: Damn, who was it who played Amon Göth?
– Ralph Fiennes.
Anderson: Of course! – Tried and tested, he’ll be perfect.
Is, I suppose, how the conversation went between Wes Anderson and his casting agent when searching for an actor to play the titular character.
Following Anderson’s success with Fantastic Mr. Fox there is no surprise that Anderson jumped at the opportunity to return to the works of Roald Dahl. The Rat Catcher is a short film of 17 minutes and is based on the story of the same title by Dahl. The film is about a rat catcher (Ralph Fiennes) who has dedicated his life to catching rats and in doing so he has became rat-like himself1. The film blurs the lines between rat and human throughout and compares the similar treatment of both. In doing so, Anderson reminds the audience of the antisemitic comparisons of Jews and rats.
The genre of the film is somewhat hard to define2, it has unsettling moments which scream horror and the jokes of a comedy, equally, the narration from the news reporter (Richard Ayoade) and set design make it more like a theatre production than a film. The play like feel of the film makes the audience self-aware of being addressed, often characters will look down the camera and break the fourth wall by addressing the audience and the set is quite clearly fabricated. This allows Anderson to encourage the audience’s active engagement with aspects of human-animal relations. In particular, the historical comparison of Jews to rats by antisemites in order to dehumanise and villainise them as well as the use of the problematic term ‘vermin’ for both humans and rats. The echoes of antisemitism in this story are particularly poignant given Roald Dahl’s very public antisemitic views.3 Whilst mainly live action, the only feature of a ‘real’ rat is towards the end, allowing Anderson to express what cannot be expressed with live-action.
The foregrounded theme of the film is the extermination of rats, however there is also a subverted theme which illustrates the antisemitic views of Dahl and gives Anderson a base to open a discussion of the history of the human-rat relation. The catcher puts on a sort of performance in order to gain the trust of the viewer but also the characters in the film, there is a mechanic (Claude) played by Rupert Friend and a news reporter who narrates a lot of the story played by Richard Ayoade. As part of his performance he tells the news reporter that to be as good at his job as he is, he has to be “cleverer than a rat.” This is where the subverted theme of antisemitism becomes more visible. The line and pride in ability sounds very similar to that of Nazi Colonel, Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds4 when he is interrogating Lapatide for the whereabouts of a Jewish family. Landa tell the farmer, “what makes me such an effective hunter of the jews is…I can think like a jew.” This is a representation of how Nazis and other antisemitic groups often compared Jews to rats.
Now, the sinister subverted idea that the rats in the film represent Jewish people is apparent, this is supported with the knowledge of Dahl’s antisemitic views. For many years the Jewish people have been compared to rodents in order to dehumanise and villainise them. n many Western societies, for many years, rats have been villainised and consequently exterminated. This is because of the belief that they are dirty, unempathetic and disgusting animals. This view of rats has been used to as a comparison for Jewish people and other ethnic groups which have been deemed by far-right groups as undesirable. This can be seen in Nazi propaganda but also American antisemitic propaganda in pre WW2 as well as countries in central Europe at the beginning of the war.
There is also potential for the idea that Fiennes’ casting in this film was partly because of his role playing Amon Göth in Schindler’s list and significantly the actor plays Roald Dahl in little cameos throughout the Netflix collection.
With the knowledge that the rats in the film represent Jews, what can be said for what the rat catcher represents? His character is not as simply identifiable as a Nazi in the same Landa is. The fact that the catcher is so rat-like diverts him away from being identified as the equivalent to a Nazi (imagine Landa being characterised as Jewish in Inglorious Basterds). This makes the character quite mysterious and eery, almost as if he is hiding a secret, is he a rat too? If we look at Fiennes’ body language when the reporter shouts: “You’ve almost got to be a rat yourself!” The rat catcher comes in close to him and looks over his shoulder nervously back towards Claude as if panicking his cover is blown. This would certainly fit in with the colloquial use of the word ‘rat’ to describe someone who ‘snitches’ on others. Indeed, there is a sort of eeriness that lingers around the character and his ability to understand rats beyond normal human capability. The play like tone and direction of the film helps to characterise the mysteriousness/rattiness of the rat catcher when the narration from Ayoade’s character gives the description of him leaving through the alley, he says:
“The way he walked was so like a rat it made you wonder–that slow, almost delicate ambling walk with a lot of give at the knees and no sound at all from the footsteps on the gravel.”00.05.45 – 00.05.54
The whole time Ayoade is staring straight down the camera which if anything adds more emphasis to the words he is saying – which makes you wonder. This could be an interesting way of reading it, as though the rat catcher is aware of societies treatment of rats and the fact that he embodies one forces him to try and win the respect of the antirat society. As though he has to go against his own kind in order to sustain himself and not be persecuted which is why he is nervous about his ‘rat identity’ being revealed and his cover blown. Fitting in with the idea that rats will go behind your back and betray you. Although an interesting idea, i think there is more evidence to support the catcher just latching onto the extirpation of rats and profiting from it, in the form of social recognition. Anderson has chosen to reimagine Dahl’s work in a way which criticises the representation of rats as Jews and his antisemitism. In this sense the roles shift, the rat becomes the victim and the rat catcher is the real villain. Which when viewed in the context of Jews and antisemites shows that the antisemite is the real villain in the exchange, the monstrousness that they characterise Jewish people with is in fact a reflection of their character and their disposition to plague society with hate.
This is where the self-awareness of Anderson’s film making comes in to action. Anderson wants it to be clear that the reimagining of the story is to draw attention to the antisemitism and to criticise it. In doing so, Anderson draws attention to the representation of the rats as Jews but he shifts the empathy to them and portrays the rat catcher as being a lucrative trickster who requires social justification which he tries to gain through the exploitation of rats. This seems like Anderson calling out society for taking personal gain from the exploitation of animals which is something humans have done for many years. The rat catcher seems like an extreme version of this as like Landa he does not seem to have any personal against the rats yet he revels in the opportunity to show people how effectively he can trick and kill them. At times this seems to be sadistic when the narrator tells us, “The word ‘rats’ came out of his mouth soft and
throaty, with a rich fruity relish as though he were gargling with melted but
ter.” He relishes the opportunity to kill the rats. This helps villainise the rat catcher and in doing so shift the empathy to the rats or mainly the stop motion rat.
The best example of how Anderson promotes empathy for the rats is the only scene where there is an animated rat. The representation of the rat here portrays the animal as being cute and this is done through the use of stop-motion animation, a method of production Anderson is more than familiar with. In this case the use of stop-motion allows Anderson to really blur the lines between humanity and animality as when the rat catcher speaks it is the animated rat who’s mouth moves. This seems The use of stop motion allows Anderson allows Anderson to do this and change the representation of the rat at the end of the film.
By drawing attention to the fact that the rats represent Jews, Anderson redefines the typical Western human-rat relation which positions the rat as the villain. Instead his representation of rats in the film villainises the rat catcher but more broadly this villainises the industry surrounding the extirpation of animals just because they are deemed as ‘vermin’. Anderson has often subverted a them of consumerism in his films and most pointedly his reimagining of another Roald Dahl novel Fantastic Mr Fox (2009). At the end bit of dialogue from the rat catcher addresses the audience and characters, calling them out for being ignorant to the fact that they profit or are involved in the exploitation of animals for consumerist items yet they do not wish to admit it or see any of the violence which comes with it. This seems like Anderson’s final shot at his audience who has been aware of their address the whole way through and this moment may make them rethink their consumerist tendencies.
All in all, it is clear to see that Anderson has once again taken an original story by Roald Dahl and truly made it his own. His ability to foreground aesthetic in a way which draws us in and make things seem playful allows him to layer deeper messages behind the colour palette and set design. This makes the film very approachable and ultimately enjoyable regardless of what you take from it. Andersons awareness of pop-culture and iconography allow for reference to other productions relating to antisemitism (Inglorious Basterds and Schindler’s List). The subverted message in this film as discussed is antisemitism and Anderson uses the historical context and use of rats to insight racial hate to his advantage to criticise Roald Dahl’s views and also the general hypocrisy of antisemites. The tone of the film is very self-aware and has a live production like feel, as though we are in the theatre watching. This makes sure the audience is aware they are involved in this social commentary about how we treat animals and humans in an equally unfair way.
- For more on the significance of costume design in this film visit this ZooScope Zoom Article The Rat Catcher. Dir. Wes Anderson. Netflix. 2023. – ZooScope (shef.ac.uk) ↩︎
- See also, previous ZooScope Zoom for how the film shares features of a Western ↩︎
- Roald Dahl made public his antisemitic views. In 1983, he announced his views in the New Statesman: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,” he said. “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” ↩︎
- The Rat Catcher movie review: Wes Anderson reimagines Ralph Fiennes as a new kind of Nazi in his third Netflix gem | Movie-review News – The Indian Express ↩︎
The Rat Catcher, dir. by Wes Anderson (Netflix, 2023) https://www.netflix.com/watch/the-rat-catcher [accessed 5 November 2023]
Naahar, Rohan. ‘The Rat Catcher movie review: Wes Anderson reimagines Ralph Fiennes as a new kind of Nazi in his third Netflix Gem’. Indian Express (2023).
Morgan, Zoe. ‘Unpacking Wes Anderson’s Cinematic Style’ Curzon. (2023) https://www.curzon.com/journal/unpacking-wes-anderson-s-cinematic-style/
Anderson, Hephzibah. ‘The Dark Side of Roald Dahl’ (2023) https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20160912-the-dark-side-of-roald-dahl
Larry, Slap Harry. ‘The Rat Catcher by Roald Dahl Short Story Analysis’ (2023) https://www.slaphappylarry.com/the-ratcatcher-by-roald-dahl-short-story-analysis/
Bland, Archie. ‘Rats: the history of an incendiary cartoon trope’ The Guardian (2015).
Lonsdale, Elliot. ‘The Rat Catcher. Dir. Wes Anderson. Netflix. 2023.’ ZooScope Zoom