Directed by: Niki Caro
Premise: Based on a true story. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the directors of the Warsaw Zoo (Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain) use their facilities to provide shelter for Jews and smuggle them to safety.
What Works: The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, a married couple who oversaw the Warsaw Zoo during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The Zabinskis are played by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh and the film is frequently at its best when it centers upon them and the difficulty of maintaining their zoo in the midst of a war. Although Jan takes the lead in initiating their plans to turn the zoo into a hog farm and later to use the facilities to shelter Jews from the Nazis, the film centers upon Antonina and most of the action plays out through her eyes. Actors Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh are a convincing couple and they do an especially good job playing the tension in their interactions with Nazi officials. We know that they are lying to the German occupiers and the audience can see the cracks in their façade; Chastain and Heldenbergh do a good job letting the lie play across their faces in a way that’s recognizable to the audience but not to the Nazi characters. In that respect, this is an admirable portrayal of heroism. In many Hollywood films, heroes are unflinching and throw themselves into danger. The Zabinskis are well aware of the danger of their actions and frightened of the consequences but they go forward anyway because it is the right thing to do. That makes the heroism of The Zookeeper’s Wife much more palatable than the super heroics that audiences are accustomed to seeing at the movies. The Zookeeper’s Wife also has a notable supporting performance by Shira Haas as a young Jewish girl who takes shelter at the zoo. Haas’ character has been through a traumatic experience and the actress makes the psychological impact of the Holocaust real for the audience. The production values of The Zookeeper’s Wife are also quite good. The movie has a strong sense of place. Especially impressive are the animals. They look like living creatures instead of special effects and the filmmakers achieve pathos appeal through the Nazi’s cruelty to animals but without overplaying it.
What Doesn’t: The Zookeeper’s Wife takes place over several years and the pacing tends to lurch forward. New developments such as Antonina’s pregnancy and Jan’s participation in the Polish resistance aren’t introduced; the film just cuts to a scene of Antonina pregnant or Jan fighting the Nazis. The story lacks a dramatic shape. The film suffers from a divided focus and it does not create an impression of escalating stakes. As a result, a lot of the movie is dramatically flat and when the filmmakers try to ratchet up the tension it comes across contrived. World War II is one of the most popular subjects in American cinema and in the twenty-four years since Schindler’s List the Holocaust drama has become a fixture of Hollywood. The Zookeeper’s Wife tells a story of heroism and survival but it does not add much to its genres. It has many of the requisite details of a World War II film but The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t shed any new light on its subjects or present them in a way that adds to the field. That’s especially apparent in the portrayal of Nazi villain Lutz Heck, played by Daniel Bruhl. The character is a mustache-twirling villain and the story inserts him into the action in ways that are illogical. Heck is a historical figure who was a biologist working on Nazi breeding and genome initiatives but for some reason the film involves Heck in the hunting of Jews. This brings him forward as a villain but it doesn’t make sense within the context of the story.
Bottom Line: The Zookeeper’s Wife is a good if unexceptional movie. It doesn’t add much to the genre of World War II and Holocaust films nor does it lead us to new understandings about those topics. But The Zookeeper’s Wife does tell its story well enough and with good central performances.
Episode: #647 (May 17, 2017)