Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Daniel Bruhl
The latest installment in Niki Caro’s filmography is what The New York Times calls, “Schindler’s List With Pets,” which is a fairly accurate description. Jessica Chastain stars in and executive produces the war drama (holding a different animal in every scene, so that we never forget about the “zoo” aspect), based off of Diane Ackerman’s novel of the same name.
The opening of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” feels like it was taken from a Disney movie. It’s the summer of 1939, and Antonina Zabinski – you guessed it, the zookeeper’s wife – rides her bike through the Warsaw Zoo, which is so full of life that a young camel gallups alongside her, as she chirps “good morning” to every single animal she passes by. It’s a miracle that the critters don’t burst out into song. Caro is absolutely determined to prove that Jan (Johan Heldenberg) and Antonina Zabinski are inherently good people, and so the film’s extensive exposition goes far overboard in painting a picture of a perfect family who owns zoo.
Inevitably September 1st arrives, and Hitler invades Poland, devastating all of Warsaw, including the
beloved zoo. The fate of the surviving animals is left in the hands of Hitler’s zoologist, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), who convinces the Zabinskis to let him move their prized animals to Berlin. Soon after, he returns to eliminate the remaining animals and informs the family that the zoo is to be permanently closed.
Conditions become worse in Warsaw for the Jews, and the Zabinskis witness many of their friends suffering in the ghetto. Seeing an opportunity to save Jews, they acquire Heck’s permission to turn the dying zoo into a pig farm to provide meat for German soldiers. Under this guise, the Zabinskis work out a system, risking their own lives to smuggle as many people out of the Warsaw Ghetto as they can manage.
As a Holocaust film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” has a mediocre story, and it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. However, the movie doesn’t maintain its status of mediocrity, instead sinking to subpar levels.
It’s ironic that in a film called “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the zookeeper’s wife utterly lacks agency. Almost all of the action in the film results from sources outside of Antonina’s control. It starts from the moment of the German invasion, when Antonina begins losing the zoo. Even when she and her husband decide to rescue Jews from the ghetto, it’s Jan’s idea. In fact, Antonina is actually reluctant to follow his plan. While Jan and her son go into the ghetto to pick up Jews, Antonina stays behind. She’s hardly necessary for the story. Were she removed, little of the plot would change.
Antonina’s only chance for action is using her sexuality, or rather, that’s suggested. Hitler’s zoologist is very forthright in indicating his interest in her. Out of fear, she doesn’t do much to resist his touches, but throughout the film Caro implies that her sexuality is available for her use as a weapon, should she choose to wield it. However, once she does attempt to use Dr. Heck’s attraction to her against him, it fails abysmally. This enforces the message that Antonina is powerless to intervene in any of the decisions that the men of the story make.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this isn’t a female-friendly film, for even its title defines the protagonist by the man in her life. After all, it’s not “Antonina,” or “The Zookeeper” – it’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Still, it’s even more disheartening given the fact that the film was written and directed by women. Admittedly, I haven’t yet read Ackerman’s source material (I’ve been on my library’s waiting list for the book since September!), so this issue could be an innate problem with the novel. Either way, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a complete disappointment.