The true story of The Zookeeper’s Wife is an arresting, if somewhat familiar, narrative of heroism in the Second World War. Antonina and Jan Żabiński, the owners and operators of the Warsaw Zoo in Poland, lived in relative security during the carnage of the Nazi occupation, though their facility was robbed of its animals by the invaders. Nonetheless, the couple put themselves at great risk by hiding some 300 Polish Jews in the zoo and spiriting them to safety. It’s a noble effort that deserves remembrance, and the director Niki Caro’s handsome realization of the Żabińskis’ story mostly does the job well. So why does the film feel so airless and predictable?
Perhaps it’s that the Żabińskis’ work, while certainly worthy of veneration, is similar to other accounts that have been faithfully rendered by Hollywood over the decades. It’s one of quiet defiance in the face of tyranny and discrimination, and like many a tale of political insurgency, it may have greater resonance in this moment of growing anti-Semitism. But the film is also one that keeps its focus squarely on its heroes—particularly Antonina—to the detriment of the people she helped save. The Zookeeper’s Wife is involving at points and is often beautiful to look at, but given its subject matter it’s strangely devoid of tension.
Jessica Chastain plays Antonina, a sort of zoo savant who is introduced interrupting her own dinner party to run over to the elephant pen to help one of her animals give birth. Throughout the film, she’s never much more than a figure of unambiguous good—a helpful partner to her zookeeper husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), a doting mother to her son Ryszard (Val Maloku), and, after the war begins, a steadfast rock of hope for the many Jews she shelters in her zoo’s cavernous basements.
Chastain is luminous in the role, but not much more than that—the film’s script, by Angela Workman (based on the book by Diane Ackerman), does little to shade in her character beyond offering evidence for her boundless compassion. In the movie’s early, idyllic scenes Chastain tenderly cradles numerous exotic creatures that she seems more attached to than the denizens of Polish high society. Soon enough, though, the Nazi invasion of her country arrives, and with it, the loss of her animals, who are either shot by soldiers or shipped off to Berlin to be added to the Third Reich’s zoos.
The Zookeeper’s Wife does well to keep the grisly action and bloodshed off-screen without sacrificing its visceral impact. Caro intriguingly keeps her camera’s focus tightly on Antonina during the Nazi blitzkrieg campaign; we hear bombers buzzing overhead, but never see them. There are brief glimpses of chaos on the streets (including some escaped animals running around), but after an unsuccessful attempt to flee the city with her family, Antonina returns to the zoo and prepares for life under occupation. Chastain convincingly plays Antonina’s misery at losing her livelihood and sense of identity, as her zoo is overrun and eventually turned into a pig farm to feed German soldiers.
Caro has spoken of trying to make a “consciously feminine” Holocaust film that focuses on visual details and emotional experiences that usually go unnoticed in the genre. As such, much of The Zookeeper’s Wife is set within the gilded cage of the zoo and its extensive grounds, jumping through time as Antonina and Jan begin their project of rebellion, smuggling Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and finding them new, safer homes as a part of Poland’s underground resistance. While Jan is at the center of the action as it were, sneaking people through tunnels and hiding them in his truck (where he collects refuse from the ghetto to feed his pigs), Antonina has her own, more delicate acts of espionage to commit.
Most of these revolve around Lutz Heck (a typically twitchy Daniel Bruhl), the German zoologist who took Warsaw’s prize animals for his own menagerie in Berlin, and then embarked on a selective-breeding program to try and revive extinct species (like the aurochs and the tarpan) as a demonstration of the power of Nazi eugenics. Heck identifies Antonina as a kindred spirit, and she uses her wiles to distract from her subterfuge, playacting as his affectionate friend to serve the greater good.
This should be a delicate enough balance to generate some real suspense, but the outcome of The Zookeeper’s Wife always feels secure; even at his most threatening, Heck feels like a petty, insignificant fool. The horrors of the Holocaust play out in the background, but Caro never has enough time to really flesh out the people Antonina and Jan are saving. Perhaps the most significant of these characters is a traumatized, mute teenage girl (Shira Haas) whom Antonina coaxes back to health, but the youth’s journey revolves more around her savior than herself.
This is not to downplay the heroism of people like Antonina and Jan Żabiński, who stood up to fascism in the face of mortal danger, and are rightly honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem (an honorific from the State of Israel for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust). While Caro tells their story with proper reverence and grace, The Zookeeper’s Wife feels like a staid history lesson even in its most wrenching moments. It’s a worthy film that fails in revealing any depth to its protagonists, remembering them for their courageousness and little more.