(2017—Director: Niki Caro)
★★★ (out of 5 stars)
The Holocaust film is an example of a subgenre whose towering signature work arguably set an insurmountable bar for future similar works. Say “Holocaust film” and nine out of ten people will immediately think of the 1993 Best Picture-Oscar winning drama Schindler’s List, which many would argue no later Holocaust film has matched. Some, like László Nemes’ 2015 drama Son of Saul, have twisted the subgenre enough to stand out as a worthy “successor” to Schindler’s List. Most, however, settle for becoming “derivatives” of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 drama, and 2017’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, despite having just as important a tale to tell, will sadly go down as one such example.
Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) are the happily married caretakers of the Warsaw Zoo, one of the largest and most popular zoos in 1930s Europe. In September of 1939, they witness the destruction by the German forces of the surrounding city and their beloved zoo. Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the Berlin Zoo caretaker attracted to Antonina who has become “Hitler’s zoologist”, confiscates most of the Żabiński’s animals and permits the slaughtering of those deemed unlikely to survive winter.
The increasing ostracization of Warsaw’s Jewish community leads a Jewish family friend to ask the Żabińskis to keep in their basement his life’s work—an insect collection. At this, Antonina daringly offers to shelter the friend’s wife in their attic as well. Desiring to save at least some lives while offering their ruined zoo structures for use by the German forces, they both propose to Dr. Heck that they convert the zoo grounds into a pig farm. To feed the pigs, Dr. Żabiński would transport fruit and vegetable peelings from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Unbeknownst to Dr. Heck, however, Dr. Żabiński would also spirit small groups of Jews out of the ghetto while transporting the peelings. They would then spend as much time as necessary in the Żabiński’s villa within the zoo grounds to alter their appearances and receive new identities, before returning to the outside world or even to leave Warsaw altogether (similar to the Underground Railroad for African-American slaves during the early 1800s). With the war raging around them, the Żabińskis know that the longer they keep up their covert operation and Antonina’s conflicted ruse of encouraging Dr. Heck’s advances to keep his trust, the more dangerous it becomes not just for them, but for the dozens of Jews staying with them whose freedom is at stake.
The Żabińskis life-saving operation (adapted by Angela Workman from Diane Ackerman’s 2007 non-fiction novel, inspired by Antonina Żabiński’s diary People & Animals, published in 1968) and their successful harboring of roughly 300 lives is undoubtedly an important story to tell. The film positively portrays the couple, now recognized at Yad Vashem (the Jewish Holocaust victims memorial) as “Righteous Among the Nations” as happily married and lovingly devoted to their son, their employees, and of course the zoo animals. Director Niki Caro, recently tapped to helm the live action remake of Disney’s Mulan, deserves credit for putting real animals on camera and not spending extra for CGI-animated creatures. The caged zoo animals, life in the Jewish ghetto, and the hidden guests in the zoo villa lend themselves well to post-viewing discussions on human freedom.
The film’s flaw, like with many modern Holocaust films, stems from its inevitable comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The Zookeeper’s Wife, as solid as it is, falls short of making the anti-war and pro-life statements with the impact it intends to produce due to its somewhat glossy setting. The Żabińskis had the advantage of not being Jewish, which gave them flexibility and kept them in a relatively low profile throughout their operation, but that advantage and the nature of their role as a transit station to freedom and not a semi-permanent safe house do dampen the overall stakes of the narrative.
It also doesn’t help that Johan Heldenbergh’s turn as Dr. Jan Żabiński conducting the regular transportation of fugitive Jews is far more riveting than Chastain’s Antonina as she guards the zoo villa and tolerates Dr. Heck’s flirting. How ironic that the character with the more exciting material in a film entitled The Zookeeper’s Wife is the zookeeper himself. For this reason, Heldenbergh (writer and star of the 2012 Oscar-nominated Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown) stood out as the strongest performer, whereas with Chastain, I couldn’t help but hear at times the accent she employed voicing Gia the Italian circus jaguar from the third Madagascar animated film. Daniel Brühl, in his second Nazi role after 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, effectively captures Dr. Heck’s crafty nature, despite the film not providing him the space with which to really pronounce his real-life character’s obsession.
The downside of masterpieces like Schindler’s List, which set a standard for any future Holocaust-related films, is that aspiring filmmakers with similar film ideas can no longer withhold their big creative guns. They must strive to surpass or otherwise do something different from the genre’s signature work. Yes, parents can, with some caution due to thematic elements and a brief glimpse of nudity, show their kids The Zookeeper’s Wife and give them a unique perspective on heroes from that era. In the end, however, The Zookeeper’s Wife is no Schindler’s List, and for any new and relatively tame Holocaust-themed film, that all but guarantees a meager legacy.