“Schindler’s List” set the bar very high for films about those who helped to save Jews threatened with death at the hands of the Nazis. Very few later examples have managed to treat the subject with comparable nuance—Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness” was a rare exception, depicting the efforts of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker in Lvov who concealed a group of Jews beneath the ground in the tunnels. Though cut from similar cloth, Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife” falls far short of Holland’s accomplishment.
The story, told in a non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman, is a remarkable one. Jan Zabinski, keeper of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife Antonina (along with their young son Ryszard and some staff members) take an important decision after the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 and the closing of their operation. They convince Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), known as “Hitler’s Zoologist,” who has transported the facility’s best specimens to his zoo in Berlin, to allow them to convert their shuttered facility into a pig farm that will provide meat for the occupying forces. (Heck also intends to use his genetic knowledge to recreate extinct aurochs from their bison—he might be thought of as a Mengele-type figure experimenting on animals rather than people.)
The Zabinskis also persuade Heck that for feed they should be allowed to collect garbage from the Warsaw Ghetto, where all the local Jews have been segregated in miserable conditions. Beneath the collected scraps they will conceal Jews from the ghetto, whom they will lodge in their house, as well as the now empty animal cages in the zoo, until they can change their appearance and place them in safe houses in the city and beyond. Their work gets more complicated but also more effective when a Polish official with an office beside the Ghetto wall helps Zabinski get Jews released from the ghetto with proper identification papers. By the end of the occupation they saved some three hundred people.
It’s an inspiring tale that should be remembered—and properly commemorated. Unfortunately, Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman prove unequal to the task. Their adaptation of Ackerman’s book is practically a case study in the Hollywoodization of material that called for grittier treatment. Jessica Chastain is a fine actress, but as Antonina she is made to look like a forties studio star, complete with perfectly coiffed hair and exceptionally fine clothes. (Her accent, on the other hand, may be accurate, but it is also often quite impenetrable.) As a result her performance never achieves the authenticity it needs. As her husband, Johan Heldenbergh is treated almost as a secondary figure, despite the fact that it was Jan who was the instigator of the family heroics. The actor proves, moreover, a rather bovine presence, broken only when Jan becomes upset over the way that his wife is encouraging Heck’s interest in her in order to deflect his suspicions about them. Bruhl is a fine actor too, but though Heck was in reality a complex individual, in this version he’s a fairly standard-issue sneering Nazi, and Bruhl can’t get much beyond the caricature.
Still, these three figures get substantial screen time, as cannot be said for those whom the Zabinskis aided; they remain sketchy throughout, with the most notable of them being Ursula (Shira Haas), a young girl, traumatized in an assault by German guards, whom Jan smuggled out of the ghetto and Antonina ministered to, bringing her out of near-catatonia. But Magda (Efrat Dor) and Fraenkel (Iddo Goldberg), Jan’s close friend whom he eventually brings out of the ghetto in a scene intended to generate more suspense than it does, barely emerge as personalities. Young Ryszard is played first by Timothy Radford, whose quiet service to his parents’ dangerous work is quite touching, and then by Vad Maloku, whose stiffness is less moving.
Other than the boy’s aging, the passage of time over four years is not particularly well caught. One element of the plot that the film does concentrate on, however, is the animals, who are often used as props to trigger an audience “aw” response, particularly when they’re endangered or killed. (In a scene at a train station at the end, children being shipped to their deaths from the ghetto—looking more decently fed and clothed than they should, it should be noted—are employed in the same manipulative way.)
From a technical perspective, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” sometimes (as in sequences showing Warsaw’s destruction) looks too small-scaled, but it is undeniable that the production design by Suzie Davies and costumes by Bina Daigeler are fastidious, and Andrij Parekh’s widescreen cinematography quite lovely. The result of their efforts, however, is an ostentatiously period look that never feels genuine; the images are too glossy by half, like photos is an expensive magazine. Even the scenes set in the ghetto are disappointingly sanitized. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music complements the visuals entirely too well, its strains italicizing the nobility of the Zabinskis—as well as of the many Poles who assist them. (Indeed, there is scarcely a Polish collaborator to be found among the characters.)
Frankly, the Zabinskis, and those they helped, deserve a better cinematic memorial than this.