Movie Review: The Zookeeper's Wife

Prague stands in for Warsaw in a new true tale of defiance against the Holocaust

Directed by Niki Caro
With Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Daniel Brühl

The Holocaust has provided a background to a large number of films. The Zookeeper's Wife brings some new elements, which helps to keep the story fresh. It takes a while for the plot to get going, so it is hard to discuss the film without a few spoilers, but it is being promoted as a Holocaust film so when the plot turns in that direction it shouldn't be a surprise.

The broad outline is that the people who ran the Warsaw zoo to also helped Jews escaping from the ghetto.

Much of the film was made in Prague, as Warsaw was pretty much destroyed in World War II. Výstaviště in Holešovice stands in for the zoo exterior, while parts of Old Town are used for the ghetto, and the railway bridge with the Prague skyline in the background is seen at one point.

Jessica Chastain makes the film into a star vehicle, as the focus seldom strays very far from her. She plays Antonina Żabińska, the title character. Opening scenes show her having a special relationship with individual animals, especially the babies. She shows her skills by intervening in a difficult elephant birth, even though others call for a gun to be brought in for safety. She goes in unarmed.

When party conversation talk goes to shooting wild animals in Africa, she notably disapproves.

Berlin has sent zoologist Lutz Heck to Warsaw, and he is a based on a real character of the same name. German actor Daniel Brühl plays the role. He pretends to want to help Antonia and the zoo, but his loyalties are clearly to Berlin and also the Berlin Zoo. Much of what he does in the film, including trying to re-create extinct, more Germanic species of animals is true.

While the focus of the film is on the wife, there is of course a husband, the zookeeper. Johan Heldenbergh plays Jan Żabiński, who also takes on dangerous missions to save Jews before they are sent off on trains.

The way that the couple has devised to save people is quite clever, and best left to be revealed in the film.

The story does take us out of the zoo and into the ghetto. Conditions there are rather poor, and one shocking scene shows two German soldiers taking advantage of their complete power over helpless human beings. The single scene stands in for the individual suffering that all of the others when through. The film, in a way, takes a subtle approach in hinting at the extent of what goes on rather than show it.

The people in the film, at least at the start, have the notion that the war would be a short one. But it was not. Conditions get worse and worse as the zoo and much of the city starts to resemble a giant ruin as the film progresses.

But the Żabińskis persist in their task, despite having opportunities to leave and despite increasing risks.

The screenplay gets bogged down a bit too much in a love triangle. Antonina has to flirt with Lutz Heck to keep him from noticing that something is going on at the zoo. She also has to be seemingly pro-German in front of the troops for the same reasons. Jan, her husband, gets jealous even though they agreed before that this was the only way to proceed. They have a son, who also acts up in front of the Germans to increase the plot tension. Without playing at being pro-German, they all would be shipped off too, and nobody could be saved. So Jan and the son's stubbornness seems like poor scriptwriting to add some standard plot conventions to an already complex story.

Chastain plays Antonia with an accent, and of course in English. It is a standard Hollywood accent for World War II. Her clothes and makeup are in line with photos of the times, and not too glamorous. Jan seems a bit too modern in his look and demeanor, but just slightly.

Daniel Brühl doesn't break any new ground in his depiction of the faithful Aryan. He doesn't overdo the role, which is a benefit. He is firmly on on the wrong side, though, and a true believer in the propaganda of the time.

The film is a bit claustrophobic, as locations were limited. Shots on buildings tend to be very tight so as not to reveal modern construction nearby. Even indoors, the spaces are almost always cramped. This fits the themes of the film.

The Zookeeper's Wife isn't as polished as Schindler's List, which had a much larger budget. It also lacks the insight into humanity that The Pianist or Life Is Beautiful showed. But it is a true story, and one that should be told.

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