The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on the novel by Diane Ackerman and a new entry in the ever expanding Holocaust movie subgenre, has two things that help elevate this story from its contemporaries: The first is New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and the second is Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain.
It’s 1939, and zoologist Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Chastain) are running one of the most prestigious zoos in Warsaw, Poland. But of course war is on the way. Early in the movie, we meet Daniel Brühl’s Dr. Lutz Heck, a German zoologist who isn’t just interested in some of the rarer specimens at the Zabinski’s zoo; he also has his eyes on Antonina. When war hits Poland, it does so in a brutal way as bombs drop on the zoo, killing many of the animals.
In the aftermath, the German doctor agrees to take some of the Zabinski’s animals as the Nazis liquidate their zoo, and the Jews in Warsaw start being herded into a ghetto. Realizing that can’t be good, the Zabinskis convince Lutz to let them set up a pig farm in the former zoo that’s actually a front for Jan to sneak Jews out of the ghetto and get them to safety.
When you think about movies telling stories of the brave people who helped save Jews from the horrors of World War II, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List will of course be the first movie that comes to mind. And ultimately, that’s always going to be the best, as hard as others try to emulate it. The book by Diane Ackerman that inspired this movie certainly offers a similarly brave protagonist who went above and beyond, but there’s a lot more filler in the film version than is necessary.
For example, much of the first act involves Chastain cozying up with cute, furry animals—it would certainly make a great calendar—but as was the case with her recent film Miss Sloane, Chastain seems to be far better than the material given to her. Angela Workman’s adaptation of Ackerman’s book doesn’t offer enough weight to make it seem like a compelling story, and that keeps The Zookeeper’s Wife from being as memorable as it might have been. There are a number of touching moments, particularly between Antonina and a young Jewish girl who had been raped by soldiers before escaping the ghetto, but things continue to get darker as the situation becomes more dire for the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto.
Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh is impressive as Antonina’s husband, who is in danger of losing his wife while trying to do a good deed, but he doesn’t seem particularly well-paired with Chastain. You have to wonder when Brühl will get tired of being cast as these evil, ruthless Nazis, but one can probably ask that about most German actors. It’s fairly predictable that Brühl’s character will continue to go after Antonina and take advantage of Jan’s absence as he goes on trips to the ghetto, but that doesn’t make his more violent advance on her later in the movie any less shocking, even though we see it coming.
The film’s PG-13 rating keeps it from getting too graphic and much of the violence is implied. Seeing more of the atrocities that we’re already all too familiar with wouldn’t necessarily have made the film any better either. Plenty of movies have dealt with the Holocaust in ways that created powerful emotions in the viewer without resorting to the shock value we’ve almost become inured to—Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, for instance.
Despite this, The Zookeeper’s Wife is as grim a film as the subject matter demands. It’s more notable for Niki Caro stretching her muscles as a director, taking on a number of larger set-pieces, like the bombing of the zoo, without losing sight of remaining true to the characters. She does a fine job keeping things moving, even though the movie tends to get bogged down, and it isn’t helped by the erratic pacing. The Zookeeper’s Wife just doesn’t offer enough to keep the viewer invested, which will likely prevent it from becoming the type of Oscar fodder these movies normally come across as being.
The Zookeeper’s Wife opens nationwide on Friday, March 31.