Mark Reviews Movies

The Zookeeper's Wife


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Niki Caro

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Timothy Radford, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas, Michael McElhatton, Val Maloku

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking)

Running Time: 2:04

Release Date: 3/31/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 30, 2017

There's a lot of story to tell in The Zookeeper's Wife, and Angela Workman's screenplay is more concerned with the quantity of the story's details than the quality of a focused narrative. It's a story set during World War II that covers the span of the entire conflict in Europe, jumping ahead months and years without regard for the characters, their ordeals, or the specifics of their actions. That's because Workman, adapting Diane Ackerman's non-fiction book, is focused on the scope of the tale, not the specifics.

It's a good story, too—about compassion, sacrifice, and ingenuity at a time when those traits and more were necessary in the face of evil—which makes the movie all the more frustrating. The most effective sections here have to do with the process of hiding hundreds of Jews from the prison of the ghetto within the Warsaw Zoo, obtaining the necessary documentation for cover, and getting them to safe houses. All of this took place right in front of the occupying Nazi forces, including Hitler's most trusted zoologist, whose obsession with animal husbandry has sinister ties to his boss' understanding of genetics.

Such things are unspoken in the movie, which is strange, given that it's right there for the picking. Much is left unseen or unspoken in the movie, though, including the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto (save for a minutes-long tour that picks out a specific crime perpetrated by a pair of soldiers—as if the conditions in the place are just the result of a few bad people, instead of the start of systematic genocide) and the entirety of the death camps. This is a movie in which the impending reality of the Holocaust is a driving force for the characters' actions, yet it's also one in which no one seems to know that mass murder is happening right in front of them (Given Poland's history with that subject, the collective ignorance on display is especially unfortunate).

The heroes are Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), who run the zoo with great success. The story begins a month or so before the German invasion of Poland, with much ado about the animals. Antonina, herself a refugee of the Russian Revolution, rides her bike around the enclosures with a young camel following behind her.

When the blitz arrives, director Niki Caro offers the movie's most disturbing sequence, with bombs landing on and near the animals. The aftermath of the bombing features multiple shots of the grisly results—dead animals in various states of injury. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), who runs a famed zoo in Berlin, promises shelter for the zoo's prized animals, but when he arrives in a Nazi uniform, he has no issues ordering the liquidation of the rest.

Considering the subject matter, the movie's outrage comes across as selective and misplaced, especially when compared to the way it portrays the suffering of actual human beings during the same period. It's not that the movie doesn't show the suffering of the Jews in Warsaw during World War II. It's that Caro unintentionally errs by way of comparison. The senseless deaths of the zoo's animals are shown in horrific detail, while the movie almost coyly leaves the plight of these people to suggestion (The movie's one implication of the Holocaust is a single scene of a Jan encountering a Jewish man trying to keep a group of children calm as they board a train out of Warsaw).

Admittedly, much of this criticism is leveled against what the movie isn't, as opposed to what it is. In terms of what we actually get from it, the movie succeeds most when it follows the particulars of how the Zabinskis move refugees from the ghetto to their zoo and, ultimately, to safety. They come up with a plan to turn the zoo into a pig farm, with the feed coming from the garbage of the ghetto. Jan smuggles Jews within the piles of trash in the back of his truck. The various passageways under and between enclosures become a system of clandestine movement and hiding places. The back of a baker's shop has been transformed into a place where counterfeit documents are made.

The movie's moral stance is clear and clear-eyed. A brief discussion between husband and wife—about how hiding strangers is different than hiding a friend, especially with the dangers involved—is the one, mostly unnecessary attempt at creating moral conflict. The conflicts come mostly from the near-constant presence of Heck, who wants to revive an extinct species of cattle through breeding, flirts with Antonina, and arrives at inopportune moments for those in hiding (The movie's climax, by the way, is a race against time that seems particularly contrived). Much of the relationship between Antonina and Jan hinges on his reaction to Heck's advances.

That's because anything else about them is lost in the narrative's rush to get through events (Antonina is first shown pregnant moments before she gives birth, and another character is first seen as an underground freedom fighter moments before being in the heat of battle). The Zookeeper's Wife is too hasty to tell its story, and that haste means that we lose the impact of vital components of that story.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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