Movie review: The Zookeeper’s Wife struggles while doing the right thing

Jessica Chastain stars in The Zookeeper’s Wife, the true story of a couple who used the Warsaw Zoo to aid Jews in escaping the Holocaust. Courtesy of Focus Features Jessica Chastain stars in The Zookeeper’s Wife, the true story of a couple who used the Warsaw Zoo to aid Jews in escaping the Holocaust. Courtesy of Focus Features

Between the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the end of World War II, Antonina and Jan Zabinski used the Warsaw Zoo as a staging ground for hiding and evacuating Jews escaping Nazi persecution. Their story is a reminder that bravery takes many forms; sometimes it is picking up a weapon and confronting evil head-on —as Jan did in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 —and other times it’s a long game, gaining the system’s trust in order to do the right thing. For their deeds, the Zabinskis earned the designation of Righteous Among the Nations, a title bestowed on non-Jews who rescued Jews during the atrocity of the Holocaust.

The Zookeeper’s Wife
PG-13, 124 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

Niki Caro’s film The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of their efforts, beginning with the destruction of their zoo and the formation of their scheme under the nose of Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh play the Zabinskis with determination and poise. Their decision to resist is a given; they do not need to be convinced of how awful the occupation is, they do not need to be persecuted to have empathy for those who are. They simply do the right thing from the start for its own sake, beginning with hiding one person in a spare room before creating an elaborate system of tunnels, and using assumed identities and forged papers.

Many of the zoo’s animals were killed by bombs in the initial invasion, while the rest were taken by Heck to Berlin. Heck’s proposal to do so appeared magnanimous at first—save the choice stock, preserve the Zabinski legacy—but he soon arrives wearing full Nazi regalia and shooting all undesirable creatures. Antonina and Jan then create a plan to use the zoo grounds as a pig farm to feed the war effort, feeding the livestock with trash gathered from the Warsaw ghetto. This gains them Heck’s trust, enabling them to smuggle Jews in their trucks and hide them in the basement. Maintaining the ruse undetected proves tricky, requiring careful planning and quick thinking, yet their determination never wavers.

The Zabinski story is a remarkable one that is worth telling, and there are moments of The Zookeeper’s Wife that are tremendously effective in capturing the terror of life under occupation. Everyday life in the Warsaw ghetto is as important to the plot as the events on the zoo grounds, leading to a gripping depiction of the famous 1944 uprising, a historical event that screams for more depiction in film.

However, Caro often falls into the same traps that weigh down many World War II-era films, in that there is little motivating the action beyond good people doing good things and bad people being mean. There are few groups in history as unambiguously evil as the Nazis, but it is rather cheap to suggest that their actions are rooted in negative character traits that have nothing to do with ideology. Though Brühl is great in the role, there is almost nothing driving Heck’s wickedness except a lust for Antonina and a disrespectful attitude toward animals, valuing their breeding capabilities over their rights as living beings—a metaphor, perhaps, for the Nazi treatment of Jews, but an awkward one. (Further, it is a little confusing what his rank would be that he both leads raids and animal husbandry programs.)

When the film focused on how doing the right thing is a struggle, The Zookeeper’s Wife hits its stride as it skillfully depicts sensitive subjects. Yet last year, Poland—the setting for the film—released Demon, perhaps the best film to address the legacy of the Holocaust in recent memory. As extremists grow more confident and powerful here at home, American films desperately need to develop a more sophisticated view of what exactly fascism was and how to confront it.


Playing this week

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Beauty and the Beast, The Boss Baby, Chips, Get Out, Ghost in the Shell, Kong: Skull Island, The Lego Batman Movie, Logan, Power Rangers, The Shack, T2: Trainspotting

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Beauty and the Beast, The Boss Baby, Get Out, Ghost in the Shell, The Last Word, Life, Logan, Power Rangers

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