tv + film by Philbert Dy

A Remarkable True Story Deserves Better Than ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

Dubious dramatic choices get in the way of telling the human story.

NBHD movie 2 ticketsThe Zookeeper’s Wife is based on the true story of Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain), and is adapted from the book of the same name by Diane Ackerman. In 1939, on the verge of the German invasion of Poland, Antonina and her husband Jan (Johan Haldenberg) ran the Warsaw zoo. The Nazis bomb Warsaw, occupy the city, and relocate all the Jews into a ghetto. Under the guise of farming pigs for the war effort, Jan and Antonina sneak Jews out of the ghetto and hide them at the zoo until they can find a safe place for them to stay. They do this all while entertaining the whims of Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), Hitler’s top zoologist.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 1.18.35 PMThis is a pretty powerful story of empathy as an act of courage. In these troubled times, when it seems like empathy is on short supply, this kind of story could serve as a fine reminder of what it means to be human. It’s certainly a story, at the very least, that warrants telling. But the film falls short in translating this story to the screen. It feels tame and unfocused, unsure of what it really wants to say beyond its depiction of events. It seems to concentrate on the wrong things at times, trivializing lives as it attempts to goose the drama.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 1.21.52 PMTake, for example, its treatment of the couple’s relationship with Lutz Heck. It seems to try and build drama around Heck developing an infatuation with Antonina, and the need for her to play along with him. This subplot ends up being pretty important to the movie, with even the climax building on the relationship between the two. This is a dubious choice, because one would think that there would be enough drama in the simple depiction of a displaced, dehumanized people struggling to hide from oppressors that are hunting them down and killing them.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 1.26.51 PMPerhaps it would all be a little more bearable if it felt like the film placed as much importance on the plight of the victims. But it hardly gives them a chance to speak, even. Within the context of the film, they are nothing more than burdens to the protagonists of the film. They are mainly seen as hidden houseguests bringing danger to the door of this angelic couple. The film does show some of the horrors of Warsaw at that time, but it does so in a perfunctory, completely impersonal way.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 1.25.29 PMThe film might be too concerned with its looks to really be effective at telling its Holocaust story. It is at its most engaging in its early sequences, before the war comes to the zoo. It is much more comfortable with the depiction of the idyllic life of Jan and Antonina. As soon as the darkness creeps in, the film starts to feel unsure of itself. Jessica Chastain does a lot to keep things from just flying off the handle, the actress displaying a quiet resolve that cuts through a lot of the nonsense. But she can only do so much.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 1.27.22 PMThe Zookeeper’s Wife feels like it has prestige ambitions, but this story deserves more than that. It needed to go beyond the comfortably acceptable, award-friendly aspects of this movie, and really dig into the raw humanity of these people whose lives we are witnessing. In choosing to put so much stock on one of its more fictionalized aspects, the movie really does a disservice to the larger narrative. Because within the specific context of the movie, the marginalized remain marginal, their voices hardly ever heard, their plight compared to the animals that roam the zoo. That’s a clear problem right there.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 1.28.07 PM

Philbert Dy
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.
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