The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
They gave all they had to save all they could.
I don’t think people will ever tire of hearing stories about the Holocaust, be it soaring tales of strength and courage or moving accounts of sorrow and loss — the same goes for film. On the basis of that, we’ve awarded powerful movies such as Steven Spielberg’s ’93 masterpiece Schindler’s List and Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), cried whilst watching the Asa-Butterfield-starring The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) and the hit Italian gem Life Is Beautiful (1997). We’ve even laughed as Quentin Tarantino brought us a fictional take on World War II in his excellent Inglourious Basterds (2009). Directed by filmmaker Niki Caro, Whale Rider (2002), Jessica Chastain’s sometimes stirring The Zookeeper’s Wife is the latest in a long line of Holocaust-based movies, this new wartime drama probably a smidgen too vague and ‘light on details’ to leave a lasting emotional sting. Think of it as a weird hybrid between Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo (2011) and any one of the many other WWII films that are out there — The Book Thief (2013), Woman in Gold (2015), take your pick.
Adapted from the pages of Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book of the same name, which itself is based on the vivid (unpublished) diary of Antonina Żabińska, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of a brave pair who (following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939) sheltered some 300 Polish Jews at the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. The flick opens in the summer of ’39, where viewers are introduced to the kind-hearted couple running the Warsaw Zoo (Miejski Ogród Zoologiczny) — one of the largest in Europe — keeper Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and his loving wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain). Displaying a gentle kinda disposition, we see Antonina’s affinity for her ‘herd’ as she cuddles lion cubs, casually lets critters inside her on-premises villa and empathetically rescues a baby elephant from suffocation (whilst calming its distressed mother), this opening portion painting our protagonist in a warm, maternal light — sorta like a Disney princess who has sway over the animals.
One idyllic day, the Germans swarm into Poland, bombing the zoo, with Antonina and her son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford and later, Val Maloku), taking refuge in their home, the assault sending the animals scurrying out of their cages and into the metropolis. After a failed attempt at fleeing the city, Antonina and her family return to their residence where they prepare to live life under occupation. Enter Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), Hitler’s chief zoologist — who’s something of a predator himself — who waltzes into the zoo, offering to transport the (surviving) prize animals over to Germany until the fighting ceases, the ‘mad scientist’ planning to use the premises as a base for his diabolical cross-breeding experiments, where he intends to revive ancient creatures, like the now extinct auroch.
As Jews are singled out and herded into the ghetto, two of the Żabińska’s closest friends, Maurycy Fraenkel (Iddo Goldberg) and his partner Magda Gross (Efrat Dor), get caught in the turmoil, Antonina sporadically deciding to hide Magda in one of their attic closets, knowing very well what getting caught by the Nazi’s would mean. With the zoo basically closed, Antonina and Jan convince Heck to let them run a pig farm, which would provide meat for the German forces stationed there, this ‘scheme’ allowing Jan to leave the facility in order to get garbage from the Warsaw Ghetto to feed the swine. What the couple fails to tell Heck, however, is that under the trash, the duo plan to hide Jews, sneaking them out of the ghetto and into their basement, then back onto the streets (into new, safer homes), through hidden passageways or by passing them off as friends/ family members who can stroll out the front door. Thus, a secret railroad is born with the Żabińska’s abandoned cages and underground tunnels — originally designed to protect animals — now safeguarding people, this ‘human zoo’ putting Antonina and her family’s safety at risk.
Sharing parallels to the 2011 Polish film In Darkness, where a sewer worker uses his knowledge of the underground system to hide a cluster of escaped Jews, The Zookeeper’s Wife is slickly made, production designer Suzie Davies, Mr. Turner (2014), crafting an authentic, period-specific backdrop, reminiscent of similarly themed flicks. Likewise, director Caro delivers some visually eerie moments, particularly a sequence that sees ashes of the burning ghetto dance through the sky, sorta like falling snowflakes on a cold winter’s day. We’re also presented with shots of camels, lions, zebras and even a tiger wandering through the devastated streets of Warsaw after the initial attack, along with the faces of several bedazzled folk peering out of their windows, gazing at the odd sights below. Heck, there’s even a scene that shows a handful of Nazi’s gun down an elephant, which will no doubt get animal lovers more than a little teary.
Unfortunately, the screenplay by Angela Workman, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2011), feels a little hazy, skimming over important information, such as Jan’s large absences away and his involvement in the Polish Underground, while leaving certain (gripping) facts out — according to the book, Antonina and Jan carried cyanide pills around, just in case they were ever caught. Then there’s the hurried explanation of a ploy that sees Jan befriend a German named Ziegler (Waldemar Kobus), whose love for beetles allows him to slip several people out of the slums. Alas, what we’re left with are the less-interesting (mostly fictitious) threads, chiefly a sub plot that revolves around Antonina earning the trust of a young Jewish girl (Shira Haas) who’d been raped by Nazi soldiers, and a soap-y bit of drama whereby our leading lady flirts with Heck (to earn his trust), Jan becoming the typical green-eyed spouse. There’s a pretty great scene towards the movie’s end, where the Nazi’s discover a secret room in the back of a bakery (that the Polish Underground were using to forge passports), the soldiers burning it as quick as they can. Instead of getting into specifics of moments like these, Caro wastes time on pointless stuff, like shots of Heck rubbing against Antonina, while he forces two bison to mate!
With filmmaker Niki Caro keeping most of the focus on the women — the majority of the flick confined to the ‘cage’ of the zoo and its many grounds — the wonderful Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), more than sells the part of our nurturing lead Antonina, even if her Polish accent is (initially) a tad jarring (and distracting), this possibly due to the fact that she’s surrounded by a bunch of European actors, all of whom have varying accents. Daniel Brühl is a little one-note as German zoologist Lutz Heck, whose wacky scheme to resurrect ancient purebred animals (which was actually true by the way) sounds like something you’d find in a science fiction movie, Brühl essentially playing a variation of the guy he portrayed in Inglourious Basterds (2009). Elsewhere Johan Heldenbergh’s, The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012), expressive mug does wonders for his performance as zookeeper Jan, while Game of Thrones (2012) regular Michael McElhatton has a small but memorable part as trusted family employee and confidant Jerzyk.
At the end of the day, Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife certainly has its virtues — the film looks great and sports a couple of good performances — it’s just a shame that this harrowing tale of two real-life heroes, who stood up to ruthless fascism, has been so watered down, filmmaker Caro more focused on melodrama than the horror of the Holocaust, which is essentially playing out in the background.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie