Movies about World War II, particularly involving intrepid souls who dared to provide sanctuary to Jewish people in the midst of Nazi occupation, are inevitably peppered with obligatory moments of terror and suspense. It’s a familiar scenario: Nazis invade someone’s home whom they suspect may be harboring people as, underneath the floorboards, or inside a closet, or behind a wall, their victims lie breathlessly still. The horror and high drama of WWII have inspired countless movies from across the globe, and New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro has managed to find one of the most remarkable, stranger-than-fiction stories about “Jew harborers” to come out of the period. The Zookeeper’s Wife isn’t nearly as unique or bizarre or harrowing as the events that inspired it, though it is deeply felt and, at times, unexpectedly charming.
Based on the Diane Ackerman book of the same name, the film follows the genuinely inspiring true story of Antonina and Jan Żabińska (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh), Polish zookeepers who heroically used their vacated (as a result of a German attack) animal cages as unlikely havens for dozens of fleeing Jews during pre-invasion WWII. We meet the couple before the bombs drop, the radiant Antonina proving on several occasions to be quite gifted with the myriad animals in the wondrous, sprawling menagerie they call home (the set design here is magical). She’s also not afraid to get her hands dirty: she leaves a stuffy soiree to find a newborn elephant suffocating and proceeds to stuff her arm down the poor thing’s throat to dislodge the obstruction. The calf’s mother looks ready to pounce as gathering guests gasp at both the danger of it all and the dirt and discharge caking her party dress.
Antonina’s an odd duck amid the gaggle of diplomats and socialites, but she catches the eye of one admirer, Berlin Zoo head Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). Months later, when Germany invades Poland and essentially pancakes the zoo, he returns to promise that he’ll gather the Żabińska’s best remaining specimens to ship back to Berlin, where they’ll be involved in a mysterious eugenics project he’s heading up. Despite the shadiness of Heck’s offer, it’s nevertheless an opportunity the Żabińskas can’t pass up in good conscience. There aren’t many beasts left: following the attack, many of the four-legged friends are galloping freely around Warsaw or, worse, meet their demise at the hands of Nazi troops using them as target practice to pass the time.
Brühl’s had arguably the performance of his career in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009), in which he played an ostensibly kind-hearted Nazi who later reveals himself to be a misogynistic psychopath. He treads similar ground here, with Heck more than overstepping the bounds of decency, making cowardly advances on Antonina as a horde of soldiers stand guard outside the door. Her compliance is born of necessity: While the Germans occupy the zoo, she and Jan have been sneaking people into their basement to provide refuge. Jan goes on daily trips into the city, then smuggles the refugees he’s found by hiding them beneath mounds of trash in the back of his truck and later shuffling them into a secret tunnel in the zoo in the dead of night.
The unlikely events surrounding the Żabińskas are truly astonishing, but Caro’s way of framing their story, alas, isn’t. As the Żabińskas carry out their underground heroics, the constant threat of the German troops scurrying about their zoo should evoke nail-biting tension. True suspense, however, only arises on a handful of occasions, which is a genuine disappointment, considering the dramatic potential of the true-life events. When the moments of apprehension do come around, however, they’re handled well. In a tasteful, effective approach, Caro focuses on the actors’ eyes to ratchet up the tension rather than relying on quick cuts and jarring camera.
It’s a shame that a story so ripe with explosive cinematic potential inspired such an unchallenging movie. The violence is there; Caro doesn’t shy away from showing the disgusting details of Nazi behavior, as when Jan spots a child, bloody, bruised and limping after being sexually assaulted by a pair of soldiers. The frankness with which these atrocities are depicted speaks to Caro and co’s storytelling integrity. But what’s missing is a consistent, pervading sense of true terror, that our heroes could be caught at any given moment by their oppressors. The actors convey the fear, but the editing, lighting, and camerawork are too often in the mode of a glossy prestige picture, which feels unfitting considering the nightmarish circumstances.
Brühl and Heldenbergh don’t have much chemistry with Chastain, but she’s captivating on her own, acting as the glue that holds the movie together. Her natural compassion makes her a perfect fit for the role, and her warmth carries us through the film’s darker portions. If only the rest of the movie were so special, The Zookeeper’s Wife may have been one of the year’s sleeper hits.