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Film Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

An incredible chapter from Nazi-invaded Poland is dulled by familiar storytelling

Jessica Chastain in a still from ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’.
Jessica Chastain in a still from ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’.

The Zookeeper’s Wife opens with a montage of an assortment of wondrous animals in the Warsaw Zoo and soon, cuts to a party at a private residence. A party with the formal grace of an army gathering but full of people who care for animals -- the zoo director Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). Everything seems to be going smooth. People, with drinks in their hands, are chatting and laughing, until someone drops Hitler’s name. We are in August, 1939, the guests reminds us, a month before the Nazis take over Poland, which means that Hitler’s army will take over the zoo as well. And it’s a great moment which foreshadows the peculiar event. Will they needlessly kill animals? They can’t be ghettoised, like the Jews, because they are, well, already caged.

Turns out that the Nazi idea of racial purity and Aryan aggressive masculinity extended to animals too; we see feebler creatures like birds and monkeys being mercilessly killed. The Zookeeper’s Wife is adapted from a book, which in turn based on Antonina’s diary, and Heck, in real life, who was a Nazi stooge, supplied lion cubs to officers and other more wilder animals to the zoos in Germany. But he is known more for his obsession with bringing back aurochs -- a type of primeval wild cattle which pure-blood Germans used to hunt for game -- by selective breeding within existing domestic animals. By going back to hunting aurochs, Heck and his compatriots theorized, would enable Germans to reconnect with their roots and thus help in the Nazi propaganda.

Heck is a fascinating character – more fascinating than the zookeeper and his wife -- and the film, directed by Niki Karo, thankfully, gives him the footage he deserves. Bruhl, gifted with an interesting, puckish face, effectively plays a man who wants to gain full control but can’t help with the vulnerabilities of the human heart. He is interested in Antonina and the film’s most engaging portions are the dynamics between him and the Zabinskis, who are the opposite of him, selfless volunteers in German-occupied Poland with incredible compassion for humans and animals alike. Unlike Heck, they stick to their principles after the shift in power. The fact that Heck thinks he is as a superior zoologist to Jan amps up the tension between them.

But the movie’s unique, metaphoric central premise -- of humans hiding in cages meant for animals at the Zabinski’s basement -- doesn’t achieve its fruition. The other “rescues" don’t have the necessary dramatic tension either. The staid, period-piece-treatment doesn’t help. As a result, a large part of The Zookeeper’s Wife feels like a familiar WW II movie about Nazi defiance.

It isn’t a bad film. It isn’t even that you don’t care for the characters. The story is powerful in itself to warrant that. But it is not good enough to sustain our interest over its 127 minutes run time, especially since we know where it’s heading. Part of the reason could be the predictability of Antonina – who does everything we expect from a noble, well-intentioned character such as her.

Stories such as this need to be told to the larger world and movies, by virtue of being a mass medium, do a great service in that respect – I was unaware of this episode in Nazi history. But when you come out of the theatre more thrilled with the real story than the film itself, the latter owes much more to the former and not the other way around.

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