By Eleanor Ringel Cater
It’s one thing to buy a zoo, as Matt Damon did in the 2011 movie. It’s quite another to keep the remnants of a zoo up and running after the Nazis have goose-stepped into Poland, as Jessica Chastain does in “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”
Based on a true story, the movie follows the quiet heroics of Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh). Not only did they do their best to keep the few animals that survived the initial Nazi invasion alive; they also used their decimated zoo as a means to hide Jews who’d escaped the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. In all, the Zabinskis helped save the lives of around 300 people, all the while putting their own lives at considerable risk.
When we’re first introduced to the Zabinski’s zoo, the place is a veritable Garden of Eden. Antonina talks to the animals, as if she were a distaff Dr. Doolittle; bicycles around the grounds accompanied by a faithful baby camel; and even helps deliver a newborn elephant.
Observing all this is Big Cheese Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), who professes to care as much about the animals as the Zabinski’s do. However, he somehow to neglects to mention that the Nazis will be bombing the place to kingdom come in a matter of days or that he’s mostly interested in saving a few of the animals for their bloodline potential (shades of the Master Race). Through a selective breeding system, he hopes to bring back the auroch, an animal that perished thousands of years ago.
Oh, and he has the hots for Antonina, which drives Jan nuts. But she hopes to use her allure to manipulate Heck. If she can keep on his good side, she thinks their plan to rescue Jews will have a better chance of succeeding.
Director Niki Caro, whose resume includes such excellent films as “Whale Rider” “McFarland, USA” and “North Country,” clearly respects the material. And she knows how to push our emotional buttons.
But about an hour in, the movie seems to stall. While no one wishes to diminish or dismiss the horror of the Holocaust, the film can’t help but strike some familiar chords. “Schindler’s List” comes to mind (of course). But so does “The Pianist” (which won Adrien Brody an Oscar). And even “The Diary of Anne Frank” as Heck and his goons tramp around the Zabinski’s house, while dozens of Jewish refugees hide in the basement.
What works best are the occasional off-beat touches. Like a well-dressed couple posing for what amounts to a selfie in front of the gates of the Warsaw Ghetto, much as they might in front of the Eiffel Tower. Or the falling “snow” which signifies the Nazis are burning the ghetto and what’s left of its inhabitants (the echoes of 9/11 are inescapable).
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” has a very particular, quite amazing story to tell and yet, somehow it squanders the opportunity. I mean, something isn’t quite right when you feel worse about the Nazis shooting that baby camel than you do about the nauseating reality of the Warsaw Ghetto.