The Zookeeper’s Wife: a timely reminder to not vote for fascists

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Zookeeper’s Wife
Opens March 31

As right-wing populism rises across the globe, World War Two-inspired films have grown in poignancy. The Zookeeper’s Wife isn’t a classic, but it does a decent job pointing out the banality of evil and the small-scale aggression that escalates to real horror.

As with most of these tales, The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on real events. Jessica Chastain is Antonina Żabińska, a kind, mousy woman who, along with her husband, Jan (Jonah Heidenbergh), runs the Warsaw Zoo in 1939. In spite of assurances the establishment wouldn’t be affected by the war, the animals become early casualties of the German occupation of Poland. Antonina, Jan and a few of their workers choose to stay, hoping to save a few of the creatures.

Because of personal connections with the Jewish community and certain rapport with Hitler’s head zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the Zabinskis are able to  rescue Jews from the ghetto, hide them in the zoo and get them out of the country. It’s up to Antonina to provide the illusion that nothing’s going on — which becomes increasingly hard as Jan begins to fall apart and Lutz goes full-Nazi and makes a move on her.

The Zookeeper’s Wife joins an increasing number of World War Two stories told from a female point of view (Suite Française, Ida, The Innocents). It’s a neglected premise that’s ripe for exploration. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) does a good job portraying Antonina’s quiet heroism, but following a powerful first half, the movie falls into genre troupes like hiding in the dark and nick-of-time escapes.

I’m not saying this didn’t happen, but we’ve seen too many of these sequences, often done better.

There’s a hint of ambiguity in the relationship between Antonina and Lutz that Caro fails to exploit. For a good chunk of the film, the heroine is left to her own devices by an increasingly sullen Jan, and Lutz doesn’t come across as immediately despicable. His arc is not unlike Brühl’s other role as a Nazi, sniper extraordinaire Fredrick Zoller in Inglourious Basterds. Might be wise to branch out.

The zoo dwellers make the story instantly captivating and are sorely missed when they’re “gone”. Jessica Chastain is her usual reliable self — she does seem at ease interacting with animals, even when feeding a hippo. The actress makes Antonina relatable as someone driven to do the right thing without pretending she’s fearless. Practicality is her biggest asset.

While overall the film doesn’t quite succeed, it features some startling, unbearable moments: The animal massacre is tough to watch, but has nothing on the oblivious children asking Jan for a lift to get in the train that will take them to an extermination camp.

The Zookeeper’s Wife has good intentions but lacks the edge to leave a mark. Although the film did remind me of the time Eric and Donald Trump Jr. hunted big game and proudly posed next to the victims of their unchecked cruelty. ❧