There are some wonderfully surreal scenes of wild animals running free in the streets, an excellent visual metaphor for the absurdity and randomness of war.
There’s an amazing story contained within The Zookeeper’s Wife, about a remarkable Polish woman and her husband who saved the lives of almost 300 Jews during the Holocaust. Had director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman concentrated on telling that story rather than trying to make a comprehensive Holocaust epic, the result would have been a better film.
As it is, it’s still pretty good. I’m mystified at the negativity of some of the early reviews, but that may be a reflection of the fact that when a filmmaker tries to go big and doesn’t quite get there, the result is far more exasperating than when a small film succeeds in some ways and not in others. There’s also a particular danger in adding to the stock of big-budget Holocaust movies, a topic that has been so thoroughly mined that certain types of scenes seem generic, no matter how skillfully they are executed, with the attendant risk that a film may end up being more about other films than about its ostensible subject.
But let’s focus on the good points first. Jessica Chastain is wonderful as Antonina Zabinski, who, along with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), runs the Warsaw Zoo. Then the Nazis arrive and shut the place down, creating the opportunity for some wonderfully surreal scenes of wild animals running free in the streets, an excellent visual metaphor for the absurdity and randomness of war. Antonina convinces German officer Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) that the zoo could raise pigs to feed the Germans, in the process disposing of the garbage from the Warsaw ghetto. It’s a win-win situation in more ways than one, because it also allows Heck the opportunity to keep visiting Antonina, to whom he is obviously attracted (and really, can you blame him?). For her part, Antonina is absolutely loyal to her husband, but is also willing to use her feminine charms in the service of a good cause.
The Zookeeper’s Wife also looks great, thanks to Andrij Parekh’s cinematography (Prague stands in ably for wartime Warsaw) and excellent period detail provided by Bina Daigeler’s costume designs, Suzie Davies’ production design, and art decoration by Jan Kalous, Dan Taylor, and Magdalena Zemanova. While most of the scenes are small in scale, there are some spectacular, large-scale scenes (a case in point being the burning of the Warsaw Ghetto) that are well-executed, even if they seem to belong in another film.
With so much going right with this film, it’s all the more painful to see it fall short of the mark. One big problem is the lack of depth in the characters, due more to the script than to the actors’ efforts. While Schindler’s List was enlivened by the very mixed character of Oskar Schindler, Antonina is positively saintly. Maybe that’s the way she was in real life (the film is based on a nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman, which is, in turn, based in part on her diary), and yes, I’m aware that women both in real life and in film are judged much more harshly for any deviation from the straight and narrow, but the fact remains that it’s hard to make an interesting film with a bland central character. The other characters also lack complexity: Jan is good (when he’s not being jealous and suspicious), Lutz is bad (he even shoots an eagle, then orders a subordinate to have it stuffed), the other Germans are worse, and Jan and Antonina’s son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and Val Maloku) is spunky or bratty as the occasion demands.
The other main failing of The Zookeeper’s Wife is the inclusion of many scenes not necessary to the main story (it runs just over two hours, and it feels longer than that). If audience members don’t know by now that the Holocaust was a bad thing, watching yet another series of heart-rending scenes in yet another period movie probably won’t provide the magic key to make them understand. It’s particularly unfortunate when such scenes have already been done more effectively in other movies, the most obvious precursor in this case being Schindler’s List. Maybe Antonina did mistake ash from the burning the Warsaw Ghetto for snow, but including that reference in a 2017 film can’t help but remind people of a far more effective scene in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film. | Sarah Boslaugh