The Zookeeper’s Wife

As a holocaust film, Zookeeper’s Wife could have done with a little more urgency yet well intentioned and equally inspiring.

It’s hard to think of any other era in human history that Hollywood hasn’t exploited but the fact remains that for every life saved during WWII, there are still countless heroes that remain unnamed. Which is why The Zookeeper’s Wife is an inspiring story of courage and sacrifice, but also a noble one given the haunting scars from that war.

In the titular role is Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinski opposite Johan Heldenbergh as Jan Zabinski, zoo operators in Warsaw, just as Germany invades Poland in 1939.  Antonina loves her animals and this opening segment is beautifully shot and almost dreamlike, but all this changes when bombs drop all over the city. Then comes German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl who seems typecast as a German villain in almost every Hollywood film since Inglourious Basterds) with a proposition to move the prized animals to sanctuaries in Germany. Lutz is also an SS Officer and his sinister motives become apparent as the story progresses. Meanwhile, Jan has a plan and not just for the animals – on the pretext of turning their destroyed zoo into a piggery, they would smuggle Polish Jews out of Nazi controlled ghettos and into freedom.

Along with admirable performances from the cast, director Niki Caro’s period saga is amiably balanced between a heartwarming true story and powerful moments through the film. One scene has Antonina telling an assaulted girl why she trusts animals more than humans. In another scene, innocent children are seen eager to board a train, not knowing the destination is certain death at Auschwitz. Even as these moments are met with angst from the audience, a little more urgency could have amplified the emotional oomph of these scenes, especially if the script was filmed in the native language of this region but subtitled in English. Yet as a holocaust film based on actual events, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a poignant story and at times a stark reminder of atrocities perpetrated by humans on other humans – something even animals wouldn’t do; Scarier than that is the thought that if this happened before, it can always happen again.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.