Just in case you aren’t convinced Nazis are The Worst, here is a movie in which they slaughter helpless zoo animals, including an adorable baby camel and majestic great horned owl. If you can’t stand to see animals harmed in movies, then boy is The Zookeeper’s Wife NOT the movie for you. As Germany invades Poland in 1939, the Warsaw Zoo is bombed, resulting in the deaths of many zoo animals, followed by scenes of zookeepers morosely burying whatever is left of their charges. Later, more Nazis turn up to shoot the surviving animals for meat. It’s INCREDIBLY UPSETTING, consider yourselves warned.
Jessica Chastain stars as the titular zookeeper’s wife, Antonina Zabinski. She and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh, The Tunnel), run the Warsaw Zoo, and Antonina has a special touch with the animals, cuddling lion cubs and rescuing baby elephants from traumatic births. Their life seems idyllic, except there is a German zoologist, Herr Heck (Daniel Bruhl), in their midst, a sign of Things To Come. Sure enough, when the Nazis invade Poland, Herr Heck becomes Hitler’s top zoologist, and the Zabinskis have to manipulate their friendship with him in order to save their zoo, and later, hundreds of Jewish refugees they help smuggle out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
That manipulation mostly falls to Antonina, whom Herr Heck clearly admires, which she uses to her advantage. At this point, Bruhl has mastered the art of Conveying Threat Through Boyish Smiles, so by virtue of being a Nazi played by Daniel Bruhl, Herr Heck is a truly frightening screen presence. You feel the danger Antonina is in every second they’re on screen together, and when Antonina says, “He frightens me,” the only possible reaction is, YEAH NO SH*T ME TOO.
In many ways, Zookeeper isn’t doing anything we haven’t seen in Holocaust movies before. There’s a strong flavor of Schindler’s List, since the Zabinskis were engaged in basically the same endeavour, using work permits to disappear Jews into safe houses. But director Niki Caro (Whale Rider), finds some interesting things to do that liven up the storytelling. One of her most affecting sequences is when Jan witnesses Jews being herded onto a train—Caro focuses her camera on hands passing suitcases between them and the suitcases piling up alongside the track, recalling the piles of suitcases in the Holocaust Museum. This is a film that really challenges you to get through two hours without crying at least once.
But Caro’s best trick is just getting out of the way of her actors. Bruhl is as good as he ever is when he’s in Nazi mode—seriously, does he get tired of this?—though he can’t help but invoke Frederick Zoller with his performance. Heldenbergh makes for a dashing resistance fighter, but has the most under-written part, as Jan spends a fair chunk of the movie irate that his wife flirts with the Nazi who holds their fate in his hands.
Chastain, though, is a bit of a mixed bag here. She’s too good an actress to deliver a bad performance, but Antonina is quiet and sort of meek—maybe “retiring” is a better word—and I don’t think Chastain suits those kinds of characters well. She’s at her best when she’s playing commanding, forceful characters, like in Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane. (Even Celia Foote hid her vulnerability behind a mask of brassy confidence.) Antonina is obviously a strong woman, to risk what she risks and endure as she does, but the character does not express herself that way. And I never feel Chastain working so hard as an actor as when she’s playing this type of reserved character (see also: Miss Julie). She isn’t bad in Zookeeper, I’m just not sold that she is the best choice for this role.
But she holds it together well enough that the movie works anyway. It’s impossible not to be moved by SOMETHING in Zookeeper, and Caro effectively recreates the Warsaw Ghetto and its myriad horrors without sinking to exploitation or crass violence (she chooses her moments incredibly well on that score). And there’s no getting around the timeliness of the story, as we face the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a compelling story and affecting film, even if I halfway wish it starred someone else.
Here's Jessica out in LA this week.