"The Zookeeper's Wife" is a strong story. The 2017 film adaptation suffers from a weak script and direction that do not serve the story. Jessica Chastain gives a superb, understated performance as Antonina Zabinska, a real person. Antonina was a gifted zookeeper – why call her "wife"? – who helped save 300 Jews in Warsaw, Poland, during the Nazi occupation. She and her husband Jan were part of the Polish Underground and Armia Krajowa, or Home Army. The film is worth seeing to see their story, but it's just an okay film, not the great one it could have been.
Jessica Chastain is externally very beautiful and fragile-appearing. In her understated performance, she plays a resourceful, animal-loving Polish lady to perfection. She's the center of the film. All of the other characters are in the shadow of Chastain's central light.
Lutz Heck had the Nazi-goal of reviving extinct species like the aurochs and the tarpan – primitive cattle and horses. Heck participated in the looting of the Warsaw Zoo. He selected which animals he wanted shipped back to his own Berlin zoo. Heck also lusted after Antonina. She had to do a careful dance of manipulation of Heck to protect her activity saving Jews. Heck is played by Daniel Bruhl, who also played a lovelorn Nazi in "Inglorious Bastards."
Czech playwright Arnost Goldflam appears as Janusz Korczak, the author, broadcaster, children's rights advocate, physician, and overseer of an orphanage. Korczak famously stayed with his orphans rather than accept any of the many offers he received to be smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. The real Janusz Korczak was a slim man; Goldflam is portly. His appearance not only doesn't mesh with the real Korczak. Goldflam doesn't look like someone who'd been living under starvation conditions forced by the Nazis for the past three years. The scenes with Korczak and his orphans did make me cry, but they seem like a detour from the film's main narrative.
One problem the film faced: we have all seen Holocaust movies. Sad but true, during much of this film I was simply disinterested, waiting for it to show me something I had not seen in another film, to tell me something I had not yet heard. The film opens with Antonina happily taking care of her lion cubs, pregnant elephant, devoted young camel, and her son's pet skunk. We all know what will happen next: Nazi planes will bomb; Jews will begin to wear armbands. Brutality will increase and then there will be mass transports on trains.
Perhaps the film could have opened in media res, during the Nazi bombardment, and focused more closely on Antonina's interior life. The film tosses away references to her tragic history. Her parents were murdered by the Soviets and she had had to live on the run. Why not weave those facts into a richer portrait of the central character?
Poles who helped Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland had to scrounge food for their wards while they, the Poles, lived under forced starvation conditions. They also had to dispose of human waste without drawing any attention to themselves. The film never explores how the Zabinskis managed these considerable feats.
The film falls into a historically revisionist trap when it implies that Nazis were interested only in Jews, and Polish Catholics were allowed to live out the war in beautiful clothing. Nazis served Poles brandy in snifters and politely debated their actions. The film also implies that Nazi policies were in effect in Poland before the war began. Antonina and her son Ryszard see Jewish porters carrying heavy loads in Warsaw's market. Antonina makes a comment about how "they" are mistreating Jews. The scene is simply misleading.
Too, Nazis murdered and displaced more Polish non-Jews in the early days of the war than Polish Jews, but the film depicts Nazis as focusing almost exclusively on persecuting Jews. When the Nazi invasion begins, Jan makes a comment about how he has nothing against Jews. This is just a dumb thing for him to say. The bombardment of Warsaw was a thousand times worse than the film suggests. There are scenes were some herd animals are buried and others are set free in a forest. Poland was so desperate during the war that those animals would have more likely been butchered for meat, as happened to horses that fell in Warsaw's streets. The film just wants to tell a simple-minded, and false, story about privileged Poles and persecuted Jews. If the film had conveyed the threat the Germans posed to non-Jewish Poles as well as Jewish ones, the Zabinskis heroism would have been revealed as even more profound.
Poles fought much more than the film depicts. Jan Zabinski was a member of the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army. He taught in the underground university. He sabotaged trains and built bombs. None of this is shown in the film. Jan comes across as a hapless victim who can only stand by open-mouthed and watch as his wife attempts to twist lovelorn Nazi Heck around her sexy finger.
Polish-Jewish relations during the war were very, very, very complicated. I'm not using too many "verys." The film depicts Poles helping Jews, but it makes virtually no mention of Polish anti-Semitism. Not all Poles were heroes. Some betrayed Jews and their rescuers to the Nazis. In one scene, a Pole witnesses Antonina help a Jew. The Pole promises Antonina she will not betray her work. Had this eyewitness betrayed Antonina, the Nazis would have murdered the entire family, including Ryszard, the young son. These tensions and obstacles are only hinted at in the film.