Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is the picture-perfect example of how a film can have an enviable cast, elaborate production value and be based on a true story, but still be ordinary.
Based on the nonfiction novel with the same name by Diane Ackerman, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” tells the extraordinary story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), a wife and husband who owned a zoo in Warsaw, Poland, while suffering through the destruction of their city as it was invaded by the Nazis during World War II. Together, in the face of so much fear, injustice, death and the dominance of an entitled German officer who constantly visited their house (Daniel Brühl), the couple took it upon themselves to act against their newfound authority and hide Jews in their basement, right under the Nazis’ noses. They would sneak people out of the Warsaw Ghetto and host them for days, months or even years, until they made sure they were in a safe place.
Evidently, the Zabinskis’ story and what they did is nothing short of extraordinary and is indubitably a story worth telling. The Zabinskis were recognized for their actions by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, Israel, and were awarded the Righteous Among the Nations award in 1968. The Zabinskis hid and saved close to 300 Jews in their zoo. They were undoubtedly inspiring individuals, which is why it pains me to make this remark, but “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is not the film they deserved.
Here’s the issue. What happens when you have something extraordinary and you add ordinary components to it? Well, it just so happens that it becomes ordinary once more. It’s almost like a chemical process with a point of no return. What happens to films that are ordinary? They are left to oblivion, which is exactly what will eventually happen to “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” During an interview, Caro mentioned that the Zabinskis “weren’t necessarily extraordinary,” but rather, were quite ordinary. This way of thinking seems to be the reason why this script just does not live up to the magnitude of the people it is portraying.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is unable to escape the prison of the cliche in that it is pretty much predictable from beginning to end. Its dialogue is formulaic and quite unmemorable. It lacks poignancy and its intended shock for the audience noticeably relies on the pure fact that it is based on a true story. Worst of all, the film is extremely docile compared to what the actual experience was probably like.
The film does not seem to attempt to submerge the viewer into the actual horror these characters felt in reality. Naturally, there is no film that can reproduce the feeling completely. Nonetheless, this does not justify the film becoming just another Holocaust film to add to the bunch. I felt like a child watching an R-rated film with his mom and getting his eyes covered every time something shocking happened. I wanted to be shaken.
The film has good intentions, and Caro is more than qualified to direct a story about a strong and noble woman. Quite rarely do we see a woman in the forefront of a war film, which is something I cherished in this film. Needless to say, Chastain’s performance is worthy of praise. Her innocence and caring nature are consistent and visible through her performance. A standout for me was also Shira Haas, who plays a young girl who was raped by the Nazis in the ghetto. Her character, a product of Caro’s input, is probably the best and most surprising feature of the film. Among the very few sequences that I enjoyed was the scene in which the Jews conduct a Passover Seder in the zoo’s basement where she sings “Ma Nishtana,” a traditional Jewish song. The sequence is juxtaposed with the burning of the Warsaw Ghetto. If all scenes in the film had had the same emotional caliber as this sequence, I would not blink twice in considering this film as worthy of remembrance.
The thing is, however, I am extremely biased on the matters of Holocaust films. Sometime in January 2016, I witnessed a film that marked me, mot just as someone who was brought up Jewish, but as an avid filmgoer who is seeking to be astounded, heartbroken, enthralled and struck by the power of storytelling through cinema’s keen eye. The film was László Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” a visceral portrayal of the desire to find a purpose amid dark times. It is extremely intimate, painstakingly heavy, artistically innovative and unimaginably out of the ordinary, like a film portraying the Holocaust should be. To add to that, “Son of Saul” is not even based on a true story, something that is proof enough that based-on-a-true-story films still need the craftiness of an artist to make it something that transcends beyond its source and beyond the ephemeral confinements of the movie theater, with the power to dwell in our conscious and unconscious minds. I felt none of this with “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”