When it comes to a film, people won’t be as interested in it if it’s a story they’ve seen before or a subject matter that’s been explored ad nauseum. Marvel’s superhero film franchise is an exhausting example of this as well as, coincidentally enough for the sake of this review, World War II. Although we face the Nazis today in a different manifestation, I wonder if there are people out there like me who are tired of the rhetoric that these kinds of films have to offer. While it’s obviously important to know and understand the history behind something as significant to the world’s history as the second World War, filmmakers for years have used the events of the war as a crutch for easy storytelling. It makes sense why: it was something that went on for multiple years in various parts of the globe (perfect range of source materials to choose from), had a clear-cut good side and bad side, and in one way or another involved everyone, whether they were soldiers or citizens. It showcases the best and bravest of humanity and the absolute worst and most deplorable of humanity, and I don’t think I even need to begin saying how the Holocaust is a reflection of this.
Is it wrong to say that we’ve had enough of movies about the Holocaust specifically? Some would say they’re tired of seeing such intense brutality, some would say it’s a cheap way to elicit an emotional response from an audience, and others would say they’re important reminders of a dark and all too real chapter of human history. It’s not my place to say, but the theater I went into for The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), whose seats were almost completely filled by Jewish senior citizens, could sway the argument a certain way. As a self-described film critic, I would say that The Zookeeper’s Wife is by no means that important of an entry in the annals of filmmaking or a very good film for that matter, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t without merit or that it’s not a story worth telling.
Adapted by Angela Workman, the story is based off of the real lives of Warsaw Zoo zookeepers Jan Zabinksi (Johan Heldenbergh) and his eponymous wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain), who used their zoo to rescue Jews from the ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Directed by Niki Caro, it’s very easy to say the film’s acting is perhaps the strongest and most memorable aspect. Jessica Chastain is amazing as always and manages to carry the film as the lead with ease. Johan Heldenbergh gives a sympathetic and emotional performance, successfully being able to hold his own with Chastain without coming off too strong or too weak. Even Daniel Bruhl, who previously played another handsome charming Nazi in Inglourious Basterds (2009), leaves his mark as evil mustachioed German zoologist Lutz Heck.
Performances are key in any drama, and while the acting across the board here is strong, the film throughout is still somewhat melodramatic. It’s not completely distracting, but I can’t help but think that any melodramatic element exists to make up for the weak script. The film’s first act is a slight exception and was a nice introduction to the setting and characters, despite the overuse of dramatic irony (“boy do I hope Berlin doesn’t get fucked by the war”). The opening shot shows lion cubs lying in bed with Antonina’s son at sunrise as she goes to open the doors to the balcony overlooking the zoo. It’s a ridiculous sounding opening, but I honestly didn’t mind as I thought depicting the zoo as a sort of Eden where humans and animals “coexist” was a visually interesting way to establish the caring nature of the characters and provide a strong contrast for the eventual Nazi occupation. However, there is hardly any real sense that these characters have genuine depth outside of this opening and a dinner party scene also in the first act, which introduces Bruhl’s German zoologist character. You’ll realize after some time that when characters have a discussion their dialogue serves exclusively to set up the next plot point and move the story forward, which even in a story like this affects how genuinely emotionally invested you’ll get. Characters talk about a task to be accomplished, the task gets accomplished (shown mostly through visuals and often entirely without dialogue), and then the characters breathe easy together until the next problem is assessed. Outside of one’s natural human reaction to tragedy and any sort of connection to the subject matter, the performances are what will get you invested in this film. The melodramatic direction will appeal to your emotions as intended, but the actors believing every word they say will make you believe it too, and thankfully the film is still structured well enough to where there are slower moments in between the “talky scenes” where the visual storytelling dominates and acting shines through as it should.
It would’ve been hard for The Zookeeper’s Wife to be anything but average. It’s very representative of that delicate balance between adapting a story for historical accuracy and actually telling a compelling narrative. Hidden Figures (2016) is a good example of the opposite of The Zookeeper’s Wife as the prior compromised historical accuracy for the sake of a more dramatically compelling story with character arcs and modern themes, whereas the latter stuck with the history at hand and reenacting the past. This maybe contributes to the film not standing as strongly on its own merit, but it comes from a place of respect for the events it depicts and it’s still quite clever about what it was able to accomplish. First of all, there’s no distracting focus or exploitation of the “gruesome details,” for lack of a better phrase. The destruction from the blitzkrieg is very localized to what’s happening at the zoo and you see enough of what happens during and after the bombing to get the gist. Like I said before, plenty of World War II movies have come out to where you can easily fill in any gaps relating to what isn’t being depicted on screen. This especially relates to details pertaining to the Holocaust. The brutally real moments are used very sparingly throughout the film and help remind the audience exactly what the Zabinski’s are working against. It’s very reminiscent of what Spielberg did in Schindler’s List (1993) but to a much less intense degree, and having the film focus on a wife and her husband is advantageous for this kind of approach. We get to see Antonina hiding the Jewish refugees and forming relationships with them while maintaining a front for the Nazis occupying the zoo as well as Jan going into the thick of the ghettos to sneak Jews past the guards. It fulfills the necessary duty of visually depicting the tragedy for the needs of the story without sugarcoating anything or being too graphic.
Ultimately, what you get is what you get with The Zookeeper’s Wife. Aside from the welcome inclusion of the female perspective in the narrative of World War II cinema, there’s not a whole lot one can really learn about outside of the zookeepers themselves that hasn’t been said or done in other mediums. It’s still “entertaining” for what it is, but by no means is it an innovative film. If you really want to get your ass kicked emotionally, then watch the recent Son of Saul (2015) or revisit a much older film on the subject. For the rest of us, the safe and inspiring approach might be all you need to remember that history is not worth repeating.