If you’ve seen any ads for The Zookeeper’s Wife, you may have already smelled a rat. What’s an awardsy-looking Jessica Chastain Holocaust movie doing opening in March? Could it be that Focus Features is that rare studio trusting Academy voters to remember their prestige picture 10 months from now? Sadly I’m scoring this one for Occam. The most obvious explanation seems truest, that The Zookeeper’s Wife is opening in March because it isn’t very good. It’s more like a clumsily told, basic cable Schindler’s List.
I’m an unabashed sucker for period piece costume dramas and possess a dad-like ability to sit through damn near anything about Hitler, but every so often I get to see the world through the eyes of people who find such things dull. Watching The Zookeeper’s Wife was one of those times. If you read the jacket copy for Diane Ackerman’s book on which it was based, about “the true story in which the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands,” you’d probably think Gee, that sounds like a pretty good story.
But a good story has interesting characters, and The Zookeeper’s Wife mainly has attractive ciphers for “courage” or “evil.” That essentially does the opposite of make history come alive. Hey, remember back in olden times when no one acted like a person?
Even worse, the story treats identifying details as mere garnish, elements to be sprinkled lightly throughout the story without incorporating into a narrative, all resting on a big pile of assumptions. It’s one of those movies that feels like a feature length adaptation of its own poster. Nazis bad. Zookeepers brave. Animals photogenic.
The main problem with We Bombed A Zoo, er, The Zookeeper’s Wife, is that it glosses over anything that might be an interesting detail. Which is to say, over anything that might be of interest. Even the one paragraph Amazon description of the book includes elements the movie doesn’t.
After their zoo was bombed, Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages. With animal names for these “guests,” and human names for the animals, it’s no wonder that the zoo’s code name became “The House Under a Crazy Star.”
The movie actually never gives the guests’ animal names and I think we see them moving through the animal cages once or twice but never hiding in any.
The Zabinskis’ (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenberg) big plan for saving the zoo, once the war comes and the Nazis announce they’re going to kill most of the animals to save costs, is to convince an SS man (and “Hitler’s favorite zoologist”) named Lutz (Daniel Brühl) to let them turn it into a pig farm, using garbage from the Warsaw Ghetto as pig feed. There follows precisely one scene involving pigs before the entire story strand disappears forever.
In another scene, Lutz, who seemed like he might turn out to be not so bad for the first 90 seconds or so of the movie (suspense!), before he started murdering all the zoo animals with a Luger, tells Jan and Antonina that he wants to use their prize bison to breed aurochs. “But that’s impossible,” Jan protests. “They are creatures from the story books!”
Lutz persists, sneering that he knows more about genetics than anyone and unsubtly suggesting that Jan shut his big mouth if he knows what’s good for him. Conspicuously absent from the scene are any details of how Lutz plans to use bison to resurrect this extinct species or why Jan so strenuously objects to it. We’re left to assume that it must be bad because the guy who wants to do it is a Nazi and Nazis are bad. Later on Lutz makes Antonina hold a female bison’s reins while a male bison mounts it, then leers at Antonina while the bisons rut. Is this how you make aurochs? Who cares, symbolism! (In that Lutz leering at Antonina while the bisons hump is symbolic of him wanting to hump her)
Likewise, the film expects us to be invested in Jan’s Jew smuggling scheme without offering the slightest hint at how it actually works. We see him going into a bakery where people are forging passports in one scene and hiding Jews underneath garbage in another, but nothing to show how any of the actions relate to each other. Imagine a heist movie that just smashed together a shot of Tom Cruise dangling, Scott Caan testing a remote control truck, and Jason Statham cutting through a vault with a saw. I guess the plan worked, based on my knowledge of similar movies, but what the hell actually happened?
The Zookeeper’s Wife feels like a filmmaker giving us her sizzle reel of the most dramatic moments from and favorite images of (you could play a drinking game with every time Jessica Chastain tears up or hugs an animal) a story she never bothers to tell us. Which is a shame because I liked director Niki Caro’s last movie, MacFarland, USA, which was similarly hokey and broad, but competently delivered and effective. The Zookeeper’s Wife didn’t have to upend any of our traditional assumptions about evil leering animal murdering rape-y Nazis — heck, stickin’ it to Hitler is an evergreen plot. All it had to do was to present a coherent narrative. It does not.