The Zookeeper’s Wife is a Powerful, Though Flawed, Holocaust Tale

Hollywood loves to make movies about World War II and the Holocaust, so much so that such films almost encompass their own unique genre. The allure to filmmakers is obvious; the horrific events of the international conflict provided innumerable true and compelling stories that make for great cinema. Director Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife is the latest Holocaust film landing in theatres—and hopefully—in the hearts of viewers.

The movie is an adaptation of the novel of the same name, written by Diane Ackerman, which chronicles the real-life story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the husband and wife managers of the Warsaw Zoo who saved the lives of over 300 Jews during the German occupation of Poland by hiding them in the zoo and helping them escape the city, right under the noses of the Nazi regime. The true events which inspired the story are incredible, important, and worth telling, which the film does an adequate job doing.

As the star of the picture, the always excellent Jessica Chastain brings a lovely sense of warmth and kindness to her role as Antonina. From her interactions with the animals in the zoo to her intense desperateness to save as many lives as possible, Chastain completely sells Antonina’s compassion and delivers an emotionally effective performance that endears her to the audience.

Johan Heldenbergh is also great as Jan, whose contemplative nature, and quiet determination nicely rounds out the pair of zookeepers, though he does leave less of an impression than Chastain, who serves as the film’s emotional core. There are, however, some moments of relationship drama between Jan and Antonina that really don’t work for the story. It’s not that said moments are badly acted, it’s just that they feel out of place, as if the characters are forgetting the situation they are in and what’s at stake, which hinders the story and causes the movie (already more of a slow burn at times) to drag in places.

In contrast to the heroic couple, Daniel Brühl serves as the movie’s main antagonist in his role as German Zoologist Lutz Heck. Brühl is serviceable in the part, though he doesn’t have quite as much menace as one may expect from a villainous Nazi. He performs his function in the film without having much of an impact, and, outside of a few scenes, he doesn’t create an atmosphere of dread around the story.

In a way, that lack of dread persists throughout the movie. The film never really shows the darkest moments of the Holocaust like seminal classics such as Schindler’s List do, and while there are certainly moments of tension, it’s rather light on the blood and horror that audiences may expect from this genre. That’s not to say that the movie downplays the subject matter in any way, however. There are still moments of darkness that hit the viewer and elicit an emotional reaction, though as far as World War II period films go, it’s rather safe viewing. It’s never boring, but it won’t make audiences cringe or hang on the edge of their seat. In a way, it’s nice that the movie doesn’t invest heavily in shock value, because overall the film is about the heroic actions of Jan and Antonina; telling their story is more important here than showcasing the horrors of the Holocaust. But perhaps ramping up the intensity of the film could have added an even greater sense of fear and urgency to the Zabinski’s situation.

All in all, The Zookeeper’s Wife does a solid job of chronicling a powerful and inspiring true story, and deserves to be seen by a wide audience. Though the film doesn’t exactly roar like a lion, it’s a no mere whimper either; it’s a satisfying watch and a capably made telling of Jan and Antonina Zabinski’s war-time heroism.

Grade: B-

(Featured Image: The Zookeeper’s Wife, Focus Features)

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