'The Zookeeper's Wife': Film Review

Courtesy of Focus Features
Extraordinary story, ordinary movie.
3/31/2017

The extraordinary true story of a woman (played by Jessica Chastain) who sheltered Jews in the Warsaw Zoo during the Holocaust gets a conventional big-screen treatment.

Uncomfortable as it is to admit, there have been so many mediocre Holocaust movies post-Schindler's List that a certain fatigue has set in.

Exceptions exist, of course — films like Roman Polanski's The Pianist or Lajos Koltai's Fateless, which, through their clarity of vision and lack of sentimentality, force us to see the horror with fresh eyes. But most screen depictions of this defining 20th-century atrocity, no matter their angle, rely on predictable emotional, visual and musical cues to coax the audience toward weepy catharsis (see: Life Is Beautiful, Jakob the LiarThe Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Book Thief, Woman in Gold). Jewish suffering and Nazi evil tend not to be grappled with so much as presented in glossy, gussied-up cinematic packages, ready for mass consumption. Even more ambitious works like Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds or 2015's Son of Saul, which challenge this status quo by innovating with tone and narrative (the former) or style (the latter), feel distinctly calculated. They may go for shock rather than tears, but they're still pulling our strings; exploitation of a historical tragedy, and of the viewer’s revulsion, can take various forms.

The Zookeeper's Wife is the latest example — an extraordinary true story of terror and heroism turned into a polished, conventional drama featuring a lovely movie star, Jessica Chastain, and an array of adorable animals. The director is Niki Caro, who made 2002's Whale Rider and then the rousing but risk-averse dramas North Country and McFarland, USA; it's no surprise that Zookeeper's Wife, while competently crafted, is on the safe and snoozy side. As with many other portrayals of this ugly period, the movie's central figures and their experiences have been cleansed of complexity, embalmed in a sort of hagiographic glaze that makes even the pain look pretty. Harrowing things happen, but it’s the easiest kind of "tough watch”; we know exactly what we’re supposed to feel and when we’re supposed to feel it.

Adapted from Diane Ackerman's book based on the diary of Antonina Zabinska, who, with her husband Jan Zabinski, sheltered 300 Polish Jews at the Warsaw Zoo during World War II, Zookeeper's Wife opens on an idyllic note. It's the summer of 1939, and Antonina (Chastain), who runs the zoo alongside Jan (The Broken Circle Breakdown's Johan Heldenbergh), is doing the morning rounds ("Good morning, sveethart," she coos to a tiger in a vaguely Melania Trump-esque Eastern-Euro accent).

Then all hell breaks loose. Germany invades Poland and bombs land on the zoo, sending animals scurrying into the city. Shots of a camel trotting down a debris-strewn street and a tiger sniffing a pile of rubble as dazed civilians look on are among the film's most striking images — though the sight of Nazis gunning down an elephant is sure to make even non-animal-lovers flinch.

Enter chief Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), who offers to transport the zoo's surviving "prize animals" to Germany until the war is over (he wants to use them for "selective breeding" to create genetically superior animals). But rather than allow the zoo to be shut down in the meantime, Antonina and Jan convince Heck to let them run it as a pig farm to provide meat for German soldiers. The pigs are to be fed with garbage that Jan will collect daily from the Warsaw Ghetto. What the zookeepers don't tell Heck, of course, is that Jan will also sneak Jews onto his truck, hiding them under the litter.

And so a sort of underground railroad is born, with Antonina rushing new arrivals into the basement of the house she shares with Jan and their young son Ryszard (played first by Timothy Radford, then Val Maloku). "A human zoo," Antonina sighs, a notion that’s visualized with typical literal-mindedness in a scene that finds her tending to a traumatized Jewish teen (Shira Haas) cowering amid hay piles in one of the cages.

"I was raised with these people,” Jan later tells Antonina. “Jews, Gentiles, it never mattered to me.” The line exemplifies the film's tendency to telegraph its main characters' goodness. In its broad outlines, The Zookeeper's Wife recalls Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness, another recent movie about a Polish World War II hero, Leopold Socha, a Warsaw sewer inspector who hid a group of Jews underground for over a year. But in that film, the people (Jewish and Christian alike, including the protagonist) were compellingly, convincingly flawed — sometimes honorable, yet occasionally wretched and desperate, the horrific circumstances bringing out both the best and worst in them. Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman, by contrast, display little interest in the often messy interactions between history and humanity. The Zabinskis’ heroism in Zookeeper’s Wife is a given — deprived, for the most part, of drama or depth. These two people may actually have been as uncomplicatedly virtuous in real life as they appear onscreen, but that doesn’t necessarily make for gripping cinema. (It takes a more incisive filmmaker to turn decency into something interesting in and of itself, as Jeff Nichols did to some extent in last year’s Loving.)

No wonder the pic feels most alive when it casts the tiniest of shadows over Antonina’s saintly glow. Knowing that Heck has fallen for her, Antonina flirts with him, using her wiles to earn his trust — and making Jan jealous. It’s the movie’s soapiest touch, but at least it brings the central couple down to earth a bit, giving them a welcome frisson of good old-fashioned dysfunction. In one scene that stands out in its vividness and specificity, Antonina pulls Heck into an embrace, covering his ears so he won't hear the noises being made by the children hiding in the basement.

Caro knows how to amp up the tension, which she does in the third act, as Polish Resistance fighters (including Jan) battle German soldiers in the street. And you can sense her trying to keep the bombast in check: Harry Gregson Williams’ somewhat syrupy score is deployed with discretion, and the movie doesn’t rub your nose in Nazi sadism or Jewish agony (aside from one shameless fake-out involving an off-screen gunshot and a key character). That said, some of the most visually arresting bits are also the most manipulative, the ones where you feel the filmmakers fishing for gasps and sighs — a sequence in which Caro cuts back and forth between the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and a Passover seder, and another in which the ashes of the burnt-down Ghetto flutter and float picturesquely through the sky (“It’s snowing!” Ryszard exclaims).

The Zookeeper’s Wife is smoothly made, with assured contributions from DP Andrij Parekh and production designer Suzie Davies. Most impressive of all are the zebras, monkeys, wolves and cuddly lion cubs with twitchy ears (CGI is used minimally, mainly in the animal fatality scenes).

It’s hard for the human performers to compete, though Chastain is, as usual, fine, ably conveying the steel behind Antonina’s fragile facade. Heldenbergh has little to do, but his long, expressive, Modigliani-esque face does a lot of it for him. And Bruhl adds a few intriguing notes of desire and mercy to what otherwise might have been a cartoon villain. On the other hand, the fact that the Jewish characters are all so sketchily drawn that they barely register is perhaps the most unfortunate of the movie’s shortcomings.

Production companies: Scion Films/Czech Anglo Productions/LD Entertainment/Rowe Miller Productions
Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Niki Caro
Screenwriter: Angela Workman (based on the book by Diane Ackerman)
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl, Timothy Radford, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas, Michael McElhatton, Vad Maloku
Producers: Jeff Abberley, Jamie Patricof, Diane Miller Levin, Kim Zubick
Executive producers: Marc Butan, Robbie Rowe Tollin, Mike Tollin, Jessica Chastain, Kevan Van Thompson, Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Jennifer Monroe
Cinematographer: Andrij Parekh
Production designer: Suzie Davies
Editor: David Coulson
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Casting: Elaine Grainger, Maya Kvetny

Rated PG-13, 124 minutes

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