World War II is possibly the most documented setting embraced by the film industry. It’s dramatic stories, historical significance, bloody battles, and lessons about humanity have made for some of the greatest movies of all time. The latest film to focus on the era is “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, a movie that tells the story of a married couple who attempt to help Jewish refugees by hiding them in their zoo. While the film tells a great story during an important time in history, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is no “Schindler’s List”.
Based on the biographical book by Diane Ackerman, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” tells the story of husband and wife couple Atonina and Dr. Jan Żabiński, real life figures players by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh respectively, who open their Warsaw zoo to Jews in hiding during World War II after their animals and the zoo itself are brought to ruin during the Warsaw aerial bombardment and German takeover of Poland. The pair risks their lives to bring Jewish refugees in from the Warsaw ghetto, keeping them safe and hidden under the noses of German troops throughout the years of the war, saving 300 in total during that time.
As far as stories go, this one is one worth enjoying. World War II has become somewhat of a cliché for film in recent years, and it’s getting harder and harder for Hollywood to find credible moments, battles, and figures to focus on who were significant at that time. The Żabiński’s are truly worthy of having their story told and a great cast does justice to the source material as Jessica Chastain proves once again that she can handle any role handed to her, leading the film as the conflicted and grounded Antonina. The movie also presents a credible villain in Dr. Lutz heck, played by equally talented and often type-cast Daniel Brühl, who was a real life zoologist who came into conflict with the Żabiński and, in the film at least, has an infatuation with Antonina that is used to the advantage of the protagonists to keep Heck at bay.
The movie strikes some deep cords as we do see the peril of the animals in the zoo during the Warsaw bombing and we see the struggle of the Żabiński’s trying to manage their lives, their home, and their marriage against the odds as the stress of dealing with Lutz and the German occupation while hiding the Jews begins to take a toll. It makes for an interesting presentation of the struggles of doing the right thing and the pressure such actions had on many who chose to rebel against the German occupation and Nazi leadership at that time.
However, to that extent the film is rather one-dimensional. We see glimpses of life in the Warsaw ghetto, but for the most part the films most impressive moments take place within the zoo. Many critics have said that in the end you feel more emotionally attached to the animals that are victims of the German invasion than the Jewish refugees, and I have to agree. While the movie take the time to make some interesting statements about humans themselves being the animals in how they treat each other, the film makes it hard to invest in anyone beyond the titular wife and her husband and their own personal struggle to do what’s right. It’s a nice story to be sure, but in a time where there was true suffering this film seems to miss the mark in it’s attempted focus on the poor conditions and horrid treatment the Jewish community faced.
While we know from history that these refugees needed to be rescued we don’t really see just how bad it was beyond a few glimpses of horror as the zookeeper makes his way through the ghetto. It’s an aspect of the time that other films did justice, but this film fails to really capture the conditions and horror that truly took place.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a very nice story, and one many will enjoy for its sentiment alone. However it’s just not as good as it could have been. Lacking a certain impact, this World War II drama gets its message across well and represents its leading characters in a deserving and honorable light, but in an industry overflowing with World War II centric drama’s this film just fails to really hold it’s own. In no way a terrible film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” deserves to be watched, but it just doesn’t leave quite the impression that its subjects really deserve.