This weekend Jessica Chastain is a Polish zookeeper somewhat inconvenienced by World War II in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider) the film is based on the non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman and takes place between the years 1939 and 1945, tracing the slow destruction of Warsaw during Nazi occupation. Based on the unpublished diaries of Antonina Zabinski, it tells the true story of how she and her husband Jan were able to sneak over 300 Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto through their zoo, all while playing host to regular Nazi patrols. A by-the-numbers drama about war time heroism, the film is sufficiently engaging thanks to strong performances and a unique setting, but plays it far too safe and inoffensive to deliver the true emotional wallop the story of the Zabinskis – and Warsaw – deserve.
The Warsaw Zoo looks like a really nice place. We’re introduced to it as Antonina (Jessica Chastain) opens it up for the day; greeting each animal like an old friend. She has a special touch with the wildlife, “Eve in her garden” as Jan (Johan Heidenbergh) says after watching her save a newborn elephant, and spends much of the movie carrying around a baby animal of some sort or another. However this idyllic existence won’t last long, dark clouds are spreading across Europe foreshadowed by the appearance of Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a German zoologist who claims professional admiration for the zoo, but clearly has ulterior motives. Sure enough, when the bombs begin to fall Heck is quickly in a Nazi uniform, murdering animals willy-nilly and turning the zoo into a pig farm.
Heck is the perfect role for Bruhl, who has become the go-to guy for intimidating, yet vaguely wimpy European bad guys. Though he wears a Nazi uniform he seems more interested in goofy and hopeless endeavours like attempting to breed the extinct aurochs, and attempting to breed with Antonina, than he is with the German war effort. As Jan begins sneaking people out of the ghetto in a garbage truck and organizing armed resistance, Antonina is forced to entertain the affections of the peculiar zoologist who hangs out at the zoo. Soon the Zabinski’s have a makeshift family of “guests” living in their cavernous basement, coming in faster than they can dye their hair and send them back out with fake passports. Though a conventional Hollywood drama to its core, there’s a level of playful mischief to the scenes at the zoo; with Antonina banging on the piano to tell the refugees in the basement it’s safe to come up and have cocktails.
This tone is a bit troubling in the larger historical context of the film. Though it would be inaccurate to call this a holocaust story as the bulk of its action concerns itself with non-Jewish characters, it does take place in the shadow of the Warsaw ghetto, and rather incidentally chronicles its history from construction to terrible destruction. Little of the true ugliness pervades the screen however. Rather than show us the true horror of life in the ghetto, we’re instead urged to worry over Jan’s hurt feelings after he catches Heck washing his wife’s hands. All of the characters snuck out in the back of Jan’s garbage truck seem in relatively good health; in fact the only person subjected to truly gruesome treatment is Shira Hass’ teenage Ursula, but even her assault at the hands of Nazi soldiers takes place off-screen. That’s not to say a film can’t be set during World War II and deal with anything other than the holocaust, but the film’s passing use of these terrible events for dramatic stakes feels a bit tawdry.
Luckily, as the film takes us through the five years of Nazi occupation, Jessica Chastain’s Antonina Zabinksi remains captivating throughout. The film is at its best when she is on screen, and she raises the quality of the actors around her. As well, due to its unique setting, the film is able to capture some rarely explored aspects of civilian life during wartime. An early scene of Antonina and her young son caught in the midst of the Nazi blitzkrieg shows the terror of a sunny day turned to hell in an instant, and the film’s later moments capture the panic and uncertainty created when an occupying force realizes their cause is lost. Though far better films have been made about the Polish experience in WWII, this is the first film to tell the story of the Zabinskis, and for that alone it should be seen.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.