The film The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on the biographical novel of the same name by Diane Ackerman. Real-life heroes Jan and Antonia Żabiński sheltered more than 300 Polish Jews during World War II. Some were hidden in empty animal cages and others in their home where Antonina would play specific tunes on the piano to signal safety or danger. Initially, I thought this would be a cross between Dr. Doolittle and Schindler’s List, but I was mistaken. This is a dangerous situation where hundreds of lives were at stake. The film could have been an excellent introduction to a relatively unknown historical figure, but it doesn’t eloquently capture the essence of their real life struggle. There are some compelling moments, but the movie barely manages to stay afloat throughout its 126-minute runtime.
Antonina (Jessica Chastain), and Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) manage the Warsaw Zoo. Antonia can be seen making her rounds of the zoo in the morning as she greets its inhabitants. The animals roam the grounds when the zoo is closed, and they are clearly well taken care of. There is a lot of trust between the Żabiński’s and the animals as Antonia states, “You look into their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts.”
As the dark cloud of war hangs over Europe, Jan and Antonina decide to turn their underground vacant pig pens into a hideout for wayward Jews from the ghetto. The plan is to get these men, women, and children to safety by forging their papers for safe passage to England and beyond. The threat of discovery looms over the zoo daily, but Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), an SS officer, could be the one to blow the Żabiński’s operation sky high.
The Zookeepers Wife is watchable, but the subject matter is treated with kid gloves. One of the scenes I replayed in my mind is when the Zoo grounds are stormed by SS officers, and the audience has to watch innocent animals being slaughtered. Unfortunately, I never felt that feeling of anxiety and dread again as I had more of a connection with the animals than I did the human characters. Don’t get me wrong–this is a remarkable story. The Żabiński’s managed to save hundreds of lives while risking their own. However, the film rarely lives up to the precarious situation the real life Żabiński’s found themselves in.
Actress Jessica Chastain has some riveting moments–mainly in her interactions with Nazi Officer Heck. But those moments are too few and far in between to hold down the film. I didn’t see the enough toughness from the two lead actors. This is unfortunate because Jan and Antonia Żabiński are freedom fighters. In real life, Jan’s was involved in the Polish Underground and the Home Army. He has engaged in firefights with Nazi officers. Also, the couple was always ready to die for their cause as they carried cyanide pills with them at all times. This is what I was hoping to see. Going back and forth on whether or not Antonia will sleep with SS officers to save everyone seemed rather irrelevant to the story.
The zookeepers who risked their lives repeatedly throughout World War II is an incredibly moving and important story, in and of itself. Director Nicki Caro does her due diligence in providing a film that beautifully shot, and features breathtaking set designs. Sadly, the film doesn’t have the mounting tension like Schindler’s List or the grit of films like Defiance, but at least the general public is now aware of the accomplishments of Jan and Antonia Żabiński.
*** out of *****