Released: March 31, 2017. Directed by: Niki Caro. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh. Runtime: 2h 4 min.
The WWII era makes for some fascinating films. I sometimes like them more when they have different perspectives or depict main conflicts other than with the German Reich.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is the former, offering a woman’s perspective on the war from a heroic woman, which makes this unique. It tells a behind-the-action tale set during Germany’s Invasion of Poland, also offering a point-of-view of the war from those affected in Warsaw, Poland.
Antonia (Jessica Chastain), a sympathetic animal lover, and Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), the zoo director, are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, one of Europe’s most thriving zoos in the 1930’s.
Their world changes in September 1939 during the German invasion of Poland, as bombs damage the zoo and kill many of its animals. As Polish resistance collapses, German forces began to use the zoo as a base and it effectively closed the zoo.
Despite the Nazis being in their backyard, they essentially created a temporary haven for Jewish people to evade German forces.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is beautiful because of the Zabinski’s sheer bravery – and director Niki Caro earnestly captures their humanity. Their humanity is not only the focus but the film’s beating heart, and it doesn’t flatline.
The film’s a celebration of Antonia’s bravery. Caro directs a stellar cast, and Chastain is the strongest link. She gives a performance that’s sympathetic, earnest and moving. She’s fantastic and elevates the forgettable screenplay to new heights.
Johan Heldenbergh is good as Jan, though you don’t get to know his character well enough – and he feels like an extension of Antonia’s bravery and humanity. The female characters are stronger, and Antonia’s the star of the show. I liked scenes that express her sympathy for animals and general compassion. It’s a shame that the film about her life feels so unremarkable.
Daniel Brühl plays Dr. Lutz Heck, the film’s antagonist and Hitler’s zoologist, who is the keeper of the Berlin Zoo. He’s forgettable and I just call him the Nazi zoologist. Brühl is good, but Heck isn’t a good villain.
He has compassion one minute, like bringing the prized animals of the Warsaw Zoo to his zoo in Berlin since it has more resources. Then out of the blue he’s cruel and comes back to the zoo and shoots a beautiful eagle and casually tells a soldier to have it stuffed and mounted.
Creative choices done for his character are bad fictional aspects. The addition of the Hollywood fiction weighs it down, since Zabinski’s story seems fantastical enough on its own.
Though, one of the strongest aspects is the depiction of getting the Jews out of the Ghetto – and it’s a good creative choice because the real way is plain. These scenes are tense and exciting, with a heist-like vibe.
One of the main problems are random scenes that feel like they come right out of left field. Developments come with little introduction and granted, it might be because it’s fitting six years of story into two hours of film, but the editing disjoints the storytelling.
In one scene the Zabinski’s have hanky panky and when you’ve forgotten that, she’s nine months pregnant when we see her again and going into labour. There’s not even a discussion of the pregnancy or anything. I was questioning if I’d missed something or if it was some sort-of immaculate conception.
There’s a lot that happens in the film but it’s unraveled slowly and pacing becomes an issue. It would have been great if everything moved faster, and the dropping of boring sub-plots would have brought it well under two hours. At least it has really cute lion cubs.
The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t have the impact a film like this should possess, and feels light because of it. The story’s beautiful but it’s a shame that the writing doesn’t match the passion and beauty of Antonia’s story, as it ends up feeling unremarkable. There are a few moving scenes – namely when they get a glimpse into the scope of how many people they’re helping.
It also doesn’t feel mature enough. There are moments that could depict human horrors which would have packed a heartbreaking punch. Chastain delivers a monologue about how people are evil and animals are great, and it would have made the scene have even more impact if we could have seen some of the human evil that she’s talking about. Instead, the film shies away from moments, and it feels like it’s missing out on great opportunities.
What’s your favourite WWII film?