“The Zookeeper’s Wife” Promises a Fresh Take on a Holocaust Movie But Fails To Follow Through


MARCH 10, 2017

I’m not going to call out a fellow film critic who described “The Zookeeper’s Wife” as “‘Schindler’s List’ with pets.”  That would be disrespectful and very rude.

But it’s kinda true.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is the real-life story of Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) who, along with her zookeeper husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are the caretakers of Poland’s famed and much-respected Warsaw Zoo.  The Żabińskis love their work, and every morning Antonina bicycles down to the zoo’s entrance to welcome that day’s zoogoers.

But it’s 1939, and the Nazis suddenly strike, bombing the zoo with everything they’ve got in their effort to conquer Poland.  The terrified zoo animals break loose, and camels are seen galloping through the streets of Warsaw.  Though many locals help to bring a few of the runaway animals back to the zoo, most of the animals’ berths remain empty.  When it becomes clear that Hitler is deliberately rounding up Polish Jews, Jan and Antonina devise a plan to hide the threatened Jewish citizens in the animals’ quarters to keep them safe.

And that’s where “The Zookeeper’s Wife” stops being interesting.  It may sound offensive given the subject matter, but by now “Holocaust movies” have become its own genre in film, much like westerns or romantic comedies.  There’s a certain template that such films follow, usually resulting in Jewish citizens trying to get out being huddled in a group and boarding some sort of transport to freedom.  The Jewish characters are rarely personalized — they’re usually treated like a group — and it’s their saviors that are usually the focus of the story.

So it is in “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” but it helps a lot that one of the saviors is portrayed by Jessica Chastain, who is rapidly becoming Hollywood’s most wasted actress.  In 2011 alone, Chastain was starred in six different films, including “The Tree of Life” and “The Help” and appeared to be on the brink of becoming The Next Big Thing.  In 2014, she co-starred in “Interstellar” and “The Martian” in 2015.  And she’s still…on the brink.  Natalie Portman got “Jackie.”  Emma Stone got “La La Land.”  And Chastain was stuck with this.  Writers!  Producers!  Give this woman a great part!  You won’t be sorry.

The rest of this cast, though, is nowhere near in effectiveness as Chastain.  As the zookeeper, Heldenbergh mostly just smokes and broods.  And the always adorable Daniel Brühl has an impossible part to play — a kind animal-loving colleague in Act 1 to becoming Hitler’s personal zoologist in Act 3.  (I can’t believe that I actually used the phrase “Hitler’s personal zoologist” in a sentence, but “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is that kind of movie.)

Although some weak films in the past have gotten off lightly critically simply because they were about the Holocaust, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” had the chance to do something different with a Holocaust movie, and for the film’s first act, it pulls it off in a very promising way.  But when the battles start, it slides back into the same-old same-old.  Its heart is definitely in the right place, but its head is somewhere else.