“What have you been up to in your little zoo?”
It appears that we have been due for one of those untold stories amid the many tales of courage and bravery both fact and fiction, real and imagined, that have been told of the World War II era. There have been plenty of the battlefield hero films that include last year’s exceptional Hacksaw Ridge from Mel Gibson. Then there are the quiet and unlikely heroes. These are people who did incredible things that were often unknown during the war and often even after it was all over. Schindler’s List has become the gold standard for these kinds of emotional war movies. The Zookeeper’s Wife is set in the mold of that kind of a film, telling essentially that very kind of tale. Here the action begins with the invasion of Poland, which was the spark that ignited a local territorial conflict into a global event. It is here at the moment of that spark we find Antonina Zabinski, played by Jessica Chastain, who used her small local zoo to save nearly 300 Jews from the Nazi extermination machine failing with only two souls during the entire war. This is that untold story which most of you will discover for the first time.
Antonina Zabinski (Chastain) runs a family-owned zoo in Poland. The film opens with a rather sentimental tour of the people who work at the modest attraction and her welcoming the day’s patrons at the zoo’s gates. She has a way with the animals that includes lion cubs which roam the residential corridors rather freely. With this early look at the idyllic life, one almost feels the dread that something is going to happen which will upset this peaceful life. That “something” is the invasion of Poland by Nazi forces and the occupation of the country for the duration of the war. She is asked to help a few Jewish friends escape the Nazi roundups, and the small gesture eventually leads to a full-scale secret operation where the refugees are hidden below in the zoo’s catacombs of cages while Nazis are entertained above to avoid suspicion. The Nazis include zoologist Lutz Heck (Bruhl) who uses their common interest in animals to stay close to her. She flirts to maintain his interest and to keep the zoo from falling under tighter control by the Nazis. Both are using each other while the “guests” listen for a particular piano piece to alert them that they may come out of hiding during the late night hours. Of course, her husband (Heldenbergh) is unhappy with the fake attention she gives.
The film does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere needed to maintain the emotional tone of the film. It’s impossible not to feel for these persecuted people and to feel gracious toward the small party attempting to save their lives. The problem is that the film is too ambitious. The two-hour running time just isn’t enough to allow the film to cover the many complicated things that are going on. The emotional charge gets undercut by how swiftly the system comes together, and there are few moments when we feel that the group is close enough to discovery to raise the tension levels. There are too many onion layers here that needed to be explored and shaped to the point that we never really get beyond the surface of the material. The unique setting of the zoo is lost shortly after the invasion when most of the animals are removed by the Nazi regime. All we’re left with are the barren cages and the flood of refugees. All of that atmosphere carefully cultivated in the film’s opening moments is lost in an instant.
While the actors all do remarkable work, there’s not enough time to really cement the chemistry and relationships of the characters. Again the fast pace and need to skip over important aspects of the story are what provide these awkward performances. We don’t see the husband and wife acting much like a couple, so the tension of her necessary flirts and his reaction don’t come off as crucial as the story requires.
Of course, I understand that the story might not have been able to be sold as a three-hour film. That is particularly true at the beginning of the summer season that is already seeing such box office monsters as Beauty And The Beast and Logan. Perhaps a better time would have afforded the film the luxuries it requires to become an important piece. The result is a film that will undersell at the box office and be quickly forgotten by this time next year. It’s a story worthy of being told. But it’s a story that was worthy of being told right. The film won’t last long with more and more box office magic coming to eat away at the available screens. See it soon “and bring as many as you can”.