Films about the Holocaust always have the daunting task of accurately portraying the horror that occurred during World War II. As difficult of a task as this is, it is strange that “The Zookeeper’s Wife” feels too restrained, too timid, and too tame (pun intended).
The film is set in late 1930s Poland and reaches the end of World War II. Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan Żabiński (Jonah Heldenbergh) are the owners of the Warsaw Zoo. When the war finally reaches them, the zoo is decimated. Antonina and her husband decide that they will use their zoo to help smuggle Jews out of the ghetto, but Antonina has to start an affair with Hitler’s head zoologist Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) to keep their secret safe.
The film is gorgeously shot and the production design is beautiful and meticulous in its details. It does an excellent of job of showing life before the war and helps bring the zoo to life. However, aesthetic qualities of the film also serve to undercut the horrors that it is trying to convey, because everything looks so vividly picturesque.
Scenes in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” that depict the violence and barbarism committed by the Nazis are often not graphic in nature, except for one instance. This may seem like a small problem, but that inconsistency is indicative of a larger problem with both the film and its script. The film wants to focus on its main character, but constantly steals focus away by fixating on other characters, both human and non-human. It shows only one battle sequence late in the film, but it’s not enough to make it a war film. It also does not show enough of the war or any historical events to provide context. Not knowing what kind of film it wants to be, it tries to do too much.
That being said, the film hits the beats it needs to. The scenes in which the zoo is being bombed and the animals are being killed are tragic, especially given that the film’s first few minutes are spent introducing the audience to the different animals. There is a particularly sorrowful scene where the remaining Jews in the ghetto are all escorted to the trains that will carry them to concentration camps, where they will be subjected to hard labor and maybe executed. Jan is forced to place several children into the train, and the viewer sees the face of every single child he carries. It is an emotionally arresting scene that perfectly captures the appalling nature of the Holocaust.
Chastain gives a moving performance as Antonina, and tries her best to find the complexity in her character that is not expressed in the script. The scenes that show Antonina’s forced affair with Dr. Heck allows Chastain several moments to reveal Antonina’s innocence and innate morality, and manifest an empowering underlying feminist tone.
The film falls victim to something many biopics often do, which is a hagiographic treatments of their subjects. Its historical figures are often idealized, and Antonina is portrayed as a saint. There isn’t much shading and complexity to her; she’s strong, patient, and devoted, but not much more beyond that. The cast as a whole act to the best of their abilities, but the script never truly lets their characters come alive. It doesn’t flesh them out. Out of all the main and supporting characters, I sadly found myself caring only for Antonina and the animals in the zoo.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is an affecting and beautiful film at times, and director Niki Caro did the best job she could, given the script she had to work with. Unfortunately, the film just can’t help but feel like a collection of censored history lessons that place style over substance.