The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) Review

A MILD, BUT STILL

A POIGNANT HOLOCAUST FEATURE


 

From victories, hardships, and atrocities, the historical references of World War II have been well-documented, weaving the tales of thousands into an intricate tapestry of war. From the Europe to the islands of the Pacific Ocean, WWII in encompass many nations that faced violence of war on both the battlefield as well as the survival of civilians. While fought the war was fought on land, sea, and air, the holocaust genocide of the Jewish people, deemed unworthy by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party, was a horrific event and a black mark of human history. Tortured, dehumanized, and forced into camps, the people of the Jewish faith faced a terrible deprivation during World War II. Some, who survived the war, have documented their accounts in books and interviews, presenting their experiences to lay bare for their entire world to see of such a dark period in history. As one could imagine, Hollywood, just like there fascination with war movies of World War II, has developed many movies depicting of such events, including films like Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Life is Beautiful, Defiance, The Boy in the Stripe Pajamas, and Woman in Gold just to name a few. Now, Hollywood has returned their camera lens back on the Holocaust as Focus Features and director Niki Caro present the film The Zookeeper’s Wife. Does this feature find courage and resolve within its hardship narrative or is it just a forgetful film with a wartime backdrop?

THE STORY


Beginning in 1939, Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) are the owners of a zoo in Warsaw, Poland. The couple live in a blissful paradise, managing their zoo with happiness as many flock to their location to see the animals. Unfortunately, with the coming of war and the fall of Poland to the German Reich, their circumstances change as their zoo is bombed and to be liquidated (turned over to the Nazi party), under the directive of Berlin’ zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). As Christians, the Żabińskis are spared the reality of the Holocaust, but bear witness to the horrors of it within their community as friends and colleagues are sequestered into the Warsaw Ghettos. As Antonina and Jan wait for things to go back to normal, it becomes clear they won’t happen anytime soon. This prompts the husband and wife into action, deciding they can no longer stand by and watch, beginning to use their vast (and empty) grounds of the zoo as a hiding place for Jewish refugees that are smuggled from the Warsaw Ghetto. For a time, it works, but as the years pass, the German Reich’s occupation in Poland intensifies. To make matters worse, Heck frequently visits the zoo grounds, partly due to his determination to breed a primordial Bison beast of legend and partly due to his infatuation with Antonina, leaving her to decide how far she will go to protect the people relying on her.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


During my high school years (in my history classes), I learned about World War Ii and all of its hardships, battles, and complexities that lasted during duration, including the pre-and-post years of the war. While I enjoyed listening to all about the famous battles (what can I say…I’m a history buff), hearing about the Holocaust and how Jewish people were treated during the war by the Nazi party was heartbreaking. In school, I had to read the book Night by Elie Wiesel (a book I do recommend) as well having to write a fictional WWII story for my 10th grade project. I chose to write about a young Jewish boy named Mizer Gola and how his family got caught up in the war. While it was hardly the scholarly work or even on the same writing caliber that I am today, my 10th grade history teacher was impressed with my story of Mizer Gola and said I should become a writer of some kind; something that resonates with me today.

Anyways, with my love of movies, I’ve seeing plenty of WWII movies, including those ones that deal with the Holocaust. While these are usually somewhat depressing movies to watch, they still have a palpable feeling, showcasing the hardships and atrocities (under a cinematic light) that the Jewish people faced during the German Reich. While many will say that Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is a fan-favorite one of this topic, my personal favorite would have to be the 1997 film Life Is Beautiful, which starred Roberto Benigni. While it presented some elements in a comedy satire (somewhat), the film still retains a powerful and thematic story arc of a family caught in the WWII holocaust. If you haven’t seeing it, I do highly recommend it. Okay, okay…. I got a little sidetracked, so let’s brings this back around to the review at hand, which is The Zookeeper’s Wife.  A while back I remember hearing that actress Jessica Chastain was attached to this movie (vaguely reading the synopsis of the movie) and then I remember seeing the trailer for the film several times when I went to my local theater these past months. I wanted to see the movie (the film got released on March 31st, 2017 in the US), but I just get pushing it off until a later date. Well, the later date was a few days ago as I finally had a chance to see the film on a lazy Monday afternoon. What did I think of it? Well, The Zookeeper’s Wife, while not as fiercely nail-biting as I expected to be, is still a riveting story. It’s not the best Holocaust motion picture out there, but it’s still worth a watch.

Based on the non-fictional book of the same name by author Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife is directed by Niki Caro, whose previous directorial works includes the films Whale Rider, North Country, and McFarland USA. First, I must mention that I haven’t read Ackerman’s book, so I can’t compare much “apples to apples” from page to screen. So, this review is mostly going to be about the movie. Caro has a great opportunity to tell a very engaging story of war and heroism, which she does, allowing audiences to witness sudden oppression of the Nazi party within Warsaw, Poland, effecting many, if not all, of its citizens. Caro does a good job in effectively drumming up scenes of drama and building up tension. This is most notable in the film’s first act as the air raids over Warsaw begin, causing the various animals in the zoo to panic and howl / move frantically as chaos ensues. Another scene is when Lutz Heck visits the Zabinski household, while the Jewish refugees are hiding in the basement, afraid of making a sound and being caught by the enemy.

In terms of production, The Zookeeper’s Wife aesthetic look and feel is of quality and on the positive side of the filmmaking spectrum. Costumes, concept layouts, set designs, and props are presented well and pleasing to the eye (keeping up the appearances of Warsaw, Poland during the events of WWII). There are a couple of solid camera angles and cinematography sequences that work well within the story, so the film’s cinematographer Andrij Parekh must be mentioned as well as the film’s musical composer, Harry-Gregson Williams, for creating a dramatic and somber melodies throughout the film.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspect of the film is the actually narrative being told. While many tales of the WWII Jewish Holocaust have been told (from innocent bystanders to those forced into the ghettos and concertation camps), the story of The Zookeeper’s Wife, which is based on the real-life story, is a harrowing tale that many don’t know about, including myself. Within its story, the narrative being told displays emotional drama as well as a proper amount of courage being displayed through a heroism act of kindness. It’s quite a remarkable story to hear about and to watch on-screen, seeing Antonina and Jan Zabinski risk their lives to help smuggle Jews out of the ghetto, into their zoo, and off to safety. This act of bravery hundreds of Jews lives and lasted for the entire German occupation of Poland (that’s pretty incredible to hear).

Unfortunately, problems do arise within The Zookeeper’s Wife. For starters, being a movie centered around the Holocaust, many viewers will find the film formulaic. What I mean is that, while the film’s story is moving, heartfelt, and inspirational, it’s hard to break away from predictable nature of these type of films. The movie opens up to an environment, blissfully untouched by the war, but then gets quickly swept into the realism of the looming war. This, of course, shows the trials and tribulations of the people ben effected by the horrors of war and how they ultimately have to survive the duration of the war. Again, this is nothing new for similar movies narratives as The Zookeeper’s Wife falls prey to that narrative structure within its three-tier act. Also, the film’s script, which was penned by Angela Workman (the screenplay writer behind 2011’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan), does falter from time to time. This causes the movie to lack focus on certain aspects / scenes and indulge too much in others.

Coinciding with the film’s script, Caro doesn’t execute certain scenes quite well, including a few time jumps, which causes a huge plot gaps within the story being told. A prime example of this shows Jan fighting against Nazi soldiers in a Warsaw uprising in 1944. After doing some minor research into the matter, Jan Zabinski was a member of the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, but the movie never really mentions that, so the scene is just odd and out of place. Additionally, to be honest, the movie is quite tamed and plays its safe from onset to conclusion. Sure, the acts of violence, war, and the ill-treatment of the Jewish people are presented (there is a soft notion of young Jewish girl being raped, but that happens off-stage), but Caro never goes beyond the standard WWII holocaust historical drama picture. Therefore, the movie doesn’t have any shock value or any OMG moments, mainly working within the parameters of a light PG-13 feature rating endeavor.

Of course, the big attachment to The Zookeeper’s Wife is actress Jessica Chastain as Antonina Żabińska. Chastain, known for her roles in The Martian, Crimson Peak, Zero Dark Thirty, and Lawless, does a good job in the role of Antonina, leading her stage presence as one of the chief characters of the story. Chastain has the way of being a strong (yet vulnerable) female character, which works for how Caro wants to portray Antonina in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Some other reviewers have complained about Chastain’s polish accent being bad or inconsistent throughout, but, to me, it didn’t bother me. Now, her Scottish accent for her character Sara in The Huntsman: Winter’s War was atrocious. While Chastain’s Antonina is the big name and title character of the movie (i.e. The Zookeeper’s Wife), the real hero / star of the story was Jan Zabinski, who is played by actor Johan Heldenbergh. Heldenbergh, known for his roles in Through the Air, The Misfortunates, and The Broken Circle Breakdown, does take center stage for most of the second act. Of course, Heldenbergh is up for the task and handles himself quite in those pivotal scenes, especially when he enters and exits the Warsaw Ghetto. However, during the second act, Jan is thrust into the spotlight more, which almost overshadows Chastain for this portion of the movie, especially since the movie is titled “The Zookeeper’s Wife”.

Naturally, the film’s villain is presented through the character of Heck Lutz, German zoologist and director of the Berlin Zoological Garden, who is played actor Daniel Bruhl. Bruhl, known for his roles in Inglorious Basterds, Rush, and Captain America: Civil War, handles himself well in the role, a perfect candidate to be German Nazi official (he’s always good a playing the German / Austrian / Eastern Europe role quite well. To me, despite being almost a twirling mustache villain, Bruhl does excel at playing the role of Heck, especially through his soft threating sounding voice. Other supporting characters to be noted, include Shira Haas as Urzula, Efrat Dor as Magda Gross, Iddo Goldberg as Maucrycy Fraenkel, and Game of Thrones alum Michael McElhatton as Jerzyk. In addition, the character of Ryszard Zabinski (the son of Antonina and Jan) is played by two actors (Timothy Radford for the younger version and Val Maloku for the older version). Both are okay in the roles (good, but not great).

FINAL THOUGHTS


Antonina and Jan Zabinski take in Jewish refugees and hide them within their zoo grounds in the film The Zookeeper’s Wife. Director Niki Caro’s newest film does shine a light upon an untold story in both World War II and in the Jewish Holocaust stories. While the film does struggle in the telling of its narrative and lacking focus at certain times, the film is still a moving story that couple with some great acting, especially within its lead characters. To me, this movie was good. It held my interest and an engaging story to tell, but didn’t have that extra “oomph” it needed its execution and in its script to reach cinematic excellence. Thus, I would say that this movie is a good and solid choice as rental. The story is palpable and handled with care, but it’s not need to rush to see it in theaters. In the end, despite it not being top memorable Holocaust movie out there (its somewhere in the middle of the pact), The Zookeeper’s Wife is still a harrowing story of the Zabinski family and how they risked their lives (repeatedly) throughout WWII to save the lives of many innocent Jewish people. Interestingly (I did some more minor research into the real-life account), when they were asked about why they did what they did (years later), Jan Zabinski said “I only did my duty—if you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.”

3.5 Out of 5 (Rent It)

 

Released On: March 31st, 2017
Reviewed On: April 25th, 2017

The Zookeeper’s Wife  is 124 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking

4 comments

  • It’s still crazy to think that someone, a real someone and not a fictional person, could do what Hitler did. But the Holocaust did happen. I’ll try to see if I can watch this movie in the next few months. Watched Logan yesterday. Ghost in the Cell, Power Rangers, Pirates of the Caribbean is still on my list. And others. But I’ll try.

    • Thanks for the comment, Frank! Yeah, its really hard to believe that someone like Hitler did what he did, becoming one of the hated figures in all history. As for the movie, its worth a glance…let me know what you think when you finally see it.

  • Thanks for this excellent review Jason. I saw it recently and was quite moved by it; will also review it soon.

    • Thanks for comment and for reading my review. I will be looking forward towards reading your review and compare notes on the film.

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