It is said that there are two types of evil people in this world: Those who do evil, and those who witness evil being done but do nothing. The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on the book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, tells the story of the Zabinskis, a real-life Polish couple who refused to witness evil and do nothing. The Zabinskis rescued and sheltered...read more
It is said that there are two types of evil people in this world: Those who do evil, and those who witness evil being done but do nothing. The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on the book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, tells the story of the Zabinskis, a real-life Polish couple who refused to witness evil and do nothing. The Zabinskis rescued and sheltered approximately 300 Jewish people from the Warsaw ghettos during World War II, ultimately saving their lives. The film feels timely, considering the political agitation and general unrest pervasive in today’s world.
The movie opens in 1939 with a slice-of-life look at the Warsaw Zoo, which Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) run together as they raise their son -- and it is a sweet life, almost bordering on saccharine with its lush, colorful scenes of Antonina bidding each animal in the zoo good morning with the air of Disney princess. Things do not stay this idyllic for long, as the dark cloud of the Nazi regime settles over Poland, quickly changing life for everyone. The zoo is bombed as Warsaw submits to a brutal German occupation, and the Zabinskis see their Jewish friends ripped from their lives and thrown into the slums. Choosing to take a stand, they come up with a plan to use their zoo as a pig farm to provide meat to German soldiers. In doing so, they gain access to the ghettos, which allows them to smuggle people out in the garbage they collect for their pigs.
Antonina’s story is at the forefront of the narrative, as she struggles to maintain the façade of a Nazi collaborator while keeping both her family and her charges safe. There is a woeful lack of historical fiction that sees war from a feminine perspective, and the ever-talented Chastain brings raw, human emotion to her portrayal of this important but often overlooked vantage point.
Unfortunately, the film struggles to balance its celebration of its everyday hero and heroine with its depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. Antonina’s tenuous relationship with a Nazi scientist who frequents her zoo (Daniel Brühl) is equally fascinating and repulsive, but the script doesn’t delve deep enough into her actual feelings on the matter. Instead, it seems like the movie is too timid to explore this idea, with the result that the relationship remains nebulous and glossed over; it’s a waste of the actors’ chemistry.
That isn’t the only aspect of the story that’s underdeveloped -- while there are moments of anxiety, heartbreak, and terror, the overall portrait of wartime suffering never quite reaches the level of realism that the film clearly hopes to achieve: It always pulls back just before things get too intense. The Jewish people in the Zabinskis’ care are never seen as individuals, which hurts the movie’s sense of authenticity and ignores a crucial point-of-view in this story. By not fully committing to its trickier onscreen relationships, the screenplay ends up painting the Holocaust in reductive tropes. The Zookeeper’s Wife does provoke thought and emotion, but its message would have landed much more powerfully if it had dug deeper.