“What have you been up to, in your little zoo?”
What they’ve been up to in their “little zoo” is one of the more incredible stories of World War II.
The zoo in question is the Warsaw Zoo. Run by a Polish husband-and-wife team, it was one of the top zoos in Europe in 1939. That all changed, practically overnight, when the Germans overran Poland and dismantled the zoo.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” recounts the harrowing tale of how Antonina and Jan Zabinski worked to undermine the Nazis, right under their noses.
First, Antonina (Jessica Chastain) works with a Nazi zoologist to save some of her most cherished animals from certain death.
Just as the Zabinskis do all they can to save as many of their zoo animals as possible, they soon turn to an even more urgent safekeeping.
“There are people I know, people trying to help. They have trucks, they have guns, and they want to use the zoo as … a place to hide Jews until safe houses can be found for them.”
Ingeniously, the Zabinskis convince the Nazis to first allow them to turn their zoo into a pig farm. And where are they going to get the slop to feed their pigs during wartime? From the discarded food scraps inside the Warsaw Ghetto, of course! Each time Jan drives his farm truck into the Jewish ghetto, he drives out with two or three Jews hidden under hundreds of pounds of food scraps.
Antonina then cares for these escapees at the zoo. Keeping them hidden from the Nazis who constantly patrol the zoo grounds. She also does her best to comfort the most traumatized among them.
“You can never tell who your enemies are, or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes and know exactly what’s in their hearts.”
Tensions remain high throughout the movie because the slightest slip-up from either the Zabinskis or the Jewish people in hiding could expose them to the Nazis’ wrath. That makes for a nerve-wracking movie experience, but then again, that’s par for the course for this kind of subject matter.
It’s when the film tries to go beyond mere suspense when it tries to flesh out its characters by giving them depth and nuance, that it falls, unfortunately, flat.
Jan and Antonina’s personal relationship is alternately under-realized and overplayed. Jan’s anger and jealousy over Antonina’s interactions with the Nazi zoologist, for instance, seem wildly out of proportion. Equally disappointing, the characterization of that German zoologist starts off strong, suggesting a man of intriguing complexity, but he quickly devolves into little more than your standard evil scientist in the end. And the Jewish people are granted little more than “earnest victims” status.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” has an amazing and powerful true-life story to tell, a tale of heroism and sacrifice in the midst of the worst of human depravity. It’s the kind of history that deserves the broadest of audiences but it also deserves better than this so-so movie, which delivers on plot and suspense but scrimps on characterization and insight.