The Zookeeper's Wife (2017) / Drama-War
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking
Running Time: 124 min.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl, Efrat Dor, Shira Haas, Timothy Radford, Iddo Goldberg, Michael McElhatton
Director: Niki Caro
Screenplay: Angela Workman (based on the book by Diane Ackerman)
Review published April 14, 2017
The Zookeeper's Wife adapts the non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman, based on a true story derived from the title subject's own diary, about Jan (Heldenbergh, The Broken Circle Breakdown) and Antonina Zabinski (Chastain, Miss Sloane), a couple who ran a zoo in Warsaw, Poland just before the occupation of Nazi Germany in World War II. We start at the cusp of the war, in 1939, where the Warsaw Zoo is flourishing amid relative idyllic peace. However, the Nazis come to town, and forces the zoo to close shortly after bombing it and the surrounding city, while Jewish friends of the Zabinskis are corralled and put into the slums of Warsaw.
Meanwhile, Munich Zoo director Lutz Heck (Bruhl, Captain America: Civil War) offers sanctuary for the Zubriskis prize animals until the war is over, which they consent to do, not knowing that Heck is, in fact, the chief Nazi zoologist looking to selectively breed the animals. Unable to sit idly by, the Zabinskis decide to use the zoo's ample space to smuggle in Jews in dire need, posing as pig farmers in aid of providing meat to the Nazi soldiers, and hiding their new residents in the garbage they truck in periodically to feed the swine.
The Zookeeper's Wife is directed by Niki Caro, who is no stranger to telling stories from a woman's point of view in such films as Whale Rider and North Country. As you would suspect by the title of the film, much of the story is told from the perspective of Antonina, who was put into a distinctly unenviable position of being friendly, perhaps even flirtatious, with the smarmy Nazi Heck, to whom she is repulsed by underneath, in order to not jeopardize the safety and security of those she is trying desperately to protect.
As far as depictions of the horrors of the holocaust, it should be mentioned that the film appears to bend over backward to make sure not to get an R rating, so many atrocities are shown off screen or merely alluded to indirectly, assuming we've seen more of our share of these kinds of films to know what the significance is of Jews being rounded up and placed on trains, including the children. That will please those who might be squeamish about seeing such abhorrent acts of genocide, though there will be some that think that not showing these crimes against humanity in their worst will make people think it wasn't as bad as it seems. As such, The Zookeeper's Wife is more for those who know exactly what it means to see men, women and children boarding a train to a concentration camp, or for Nazi soldiers to force a fetching Jewish girl in the ghetto into a secluded alleyway, and don't need to see what happens at either of them in graphic detail to feel the impact.
Strong performances bolster what might have been a too-glossy tale. Chastain, in a Polish accent, is at her best when pulling out the kind of fear, anger and grief Antonina surely must have gone through in her difficult position. Johan Heldenberg is also very good as the caring husband, and Shira Haas (A Tale of Love and Darkness) is also very strong in a small role as Urszula, a young woman who is assaulted by Nazi soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto. The shortcuts in the story do impact our involvement somewhat, such as a turn where we're surprised to learn that a certain character has joined up with freedom fighters without any explanation of when, why and how, but given the wide scope of the film's narrative, perhaps some expository information had been excised for brevity.
Though the events take place over the course of six or seven years, the passage of time feels like mere months. Caro seems to build her intent in the story toward other delightful moments with the animals, or tear-jerker elements when things go sour, with a finale that particular goes into strong melodrama, complete with requisite villain Heck as a composite character of every Nazi who sought to do the family some harm, to achieve results that could have been more impactful with an honest approach. The film plays more to emotions than to realism, but Caro does hit those emotional beats quite resonantly.
All in all, the Zabinskis helped shelter about 300 Jewish people from the ghettos of Warsaw for short and long term safety for the duration of World War II. While there is a by-the-numbers element to the way that Caro and screenwriter have constructed their film about the real-life events, and the Holocaust is an oft revisited topic in films seeking awards consideration, the heroism, sacrifice and overcoming great fear displayed by the characters shine through thanks to the excellent performances, and the animal-infused tale is, at the very least, a fresh approach not taken by others in the subgenre before.
While there are certainly no shortage of films that have captured the World War II experience in nearly every facet, including those victims of the Holocaust, given the disturbing incidents brought forth by the political climate of the world, I won't be one that complains that we're getting yet another reminder of the unforgivable tragedy wrought by Nazi Germany among those of Jewish faith. Those who state that we don't need yet another story about the Holocaust, the perpetual news stories coming out of more scapegoating of people based on race, religion, or nationality makes it very evident that we still do.
©2017 Vince Leo