A zoo, repurposed.
The most affecting moment in Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife occurs early on, as the Nazis invade Poland in September 1939. The audience sees this moment as it affects Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain), her family, and their zoo. Bombs fall, some animals are killed, others are set free, and the place is severely damaged. The impacts of the bombs are felt, not just through the bass, but as animals lie there, forever gone.
To this point in Zookeeper’s Wife, the film has given almost equal weight to the animals as it has Antonina; her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh); and their son, Ryszard (played first by Timothy Radford and later in the film by Val Maloku). The destruction wrought upon the zoo is something palpably felt in the audience, but it is a weight and an upset that the film never succeeds in reaching again.
Starting just prior to the war and ending a few years after, this tale of a World War II Polish family who decides to do the right thing and hide Jews at their zoo could easily find itself a tearjerker. It isn’t. The movie fails to build a strong emotional connection from the audience to Antonina and Jan. Too much is glossed over causing the audience to repeatedly be pulled out of the tale as they question the logic behind any of it.
Additionally, for a movie called “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” a surprising amount of the story doesn’t focus on Antonina, but rather Jan. He may initially be skeptical about hiding one Jewish person but then rapidly proposes that the family hide many Jewish people at the zoo. In some of the most intense sequences in the film, Jan goes out and brings Jewish people back to the zoo. He is the one who takes the lead and is regularly at the center of the film.
By no means does Antonina have it easy. It is she who stays home and makes sure everyone is quiet during the day when Nazis are around. She is also the one who has to convince Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) that she has feelings for him so that he doesn’t realize what the family is doing. Jan, for inexplicable reasons, actually becomes terribly jealous of what he has to know is a lie. Whether or not this element of the story remains true to life, it isn’t sold in the movie.
The same can be said of drawings made by some of the Jewish people hiding in the basement of the family home at the zoo. These drawings contain not just Jewish stars, but the names of some of the people who stayed at the zoo and the year they did so. The logic behind Antonina allowing such incriminating writing on her wall is completely lacking. The sense offered by Zookeeper’s Wife is almost that the drawings are fact and therefore don’t require an explanation.
Much of what is proffered by the movie is done so in simplified fashion. As an example, before the war starts, Antonina is mocked at a party for not having much to do at the zoo. To prove her greatness, a baby elephant instantly needs her help. Not Jan’s help (even though he’s the zookeeper), her help. It is too easy, like listening to a radio report about the end of the Warsaw ghetto and then looking out a window to see the ash falling.
To her credit, Chastain does her best to sell the movie and the horror of the war, as does Heldenbergh. They are done a disservice by the depiction of those horrors, particularly as personified by Brühl’s Heck who actually announces at a party before the war begins that he doesn’t follow politics (an immediate sign that he’s going to go full Nazi soon enough). This isn’t to say that Heck isn’t frightening at moments, and that the audience isn’t scared for Antonina and the people being hidden, it is more that when the movie gets going it doesn’t have much for her to do besides sit there, hide people, and wait to be discovered.
Beyond that, the world, as visually and aurally depicted in the movie, feels real and, were the circumstances of it all not dreadful, could be described as beautiful. The sounds of animals at night, the look of the zoo and its enclosures, the costumes, and other elements are wonderful. They are just utilized in a less than enthralling film (but one which is telling a worthwhile story).