The Zookeeper’s Wife

The problem, The Boy and I mused after seeing this tale of a Polish zookeeper during WWII, is that if you’re going to do a Holocaust story, you’ve really got to do it more than just “right”. It has to excel just to be less than forgettable. Because there are so many, many excellent movies on the topic.

Director Nik Caro (director of the excellent “Whale Rider”) and writer Angela Workman (adapting Diane Ackerman’s apparently none-too-great book, if you believe GoodReads) have delivered a largely competent yet strangely unmoving tale. One would have a hard time distinguishing it from a number of other films, except for the open slaughter of animals at two points in the film.

My mother asked if she could go see it, and I told her in no uncertain terms she should not. (Like many, she can tolerate human cruelty to humans, but not human cruelty to animals.)

INAPPROPRIATE DAY!
Hey…hey…you know what day it is?

But after the animals are slaughtered, you have a pretty standard “Good guy hides Jews from Nazis” story which lacks the mawkish effectiveness of, say, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas but also the subtle power of a Sarah’s Key. I don’t suspect Caro et al of simply trying to cadge historical horror to give their film some dramatic oomph, but it could come off that way given the almost rote feeling of the thing.

I don’t want to damn it with faint praise, though. It’s not bad. It’s even good. And the RT split (60/80) suggests that we might be suffering a bit from moviegoing excess vs. the general population. It also didn’t help, I’m sure, that this followed our 5-run-classic-streak (12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Guys and Dolls, Casablanca, West Side Story). That streak would actually curb our moviegoing for a while, because it was just too hard to follow up.

We’ve seen some great movies about the Holocaust in Poland, too, like Aftermath (Poklosie) and The Innocents.

But it's true!
Johann Heldenberg and his elephants can’t believe what I’m saying.

Quick capsule: A zookeeper (Flemish actor Johan Heldenberg) and his wife (Jessica Chastain), who despite the title is as much a zookeeper as her husband (from the looks of things) find themselves occupied by those Nasty Nazis, who wreck up their zoo. They save as many of their animals as they can, and then keep things running with the help of an old, now Nazi, friend (Daniel Bruhl, a Spanish actor who’s always on hand to play The Hun, as in Inglorius Basterds or Joyeux Noel) who, of course, at no time would ever use his power to make it with Jessica Chastain.

He can’t keep his fellow krauts from ultimately wiping the zoo out, but in an act of defiance, the zoo-peeps figure out they can turn their zoo into a pig farm for the Germans, while smuggling Jews out of the ghetto. Sure, you’ve seen it before: Sneaking out people from under the Nazi’s noses, the assertion of authority, the living underground in darkness, the close brushes with death. But have you seen it in Poland? This year? In a zoo?

Ha, bet you’ve never seen it in a zoo. (Unless…no, my memory of The Zookeeper is blissfully blurry but I don’t believe there were any Nazis involved).

Not as much of a stretch as you might think.
Unless we stretch the definition of “nazi” to include Adam Sandler.

I usually go into Chastain movies thinking she’s over-hyped, until she wins me over somehow (like Marion Cotillard), but this time, I wasn’t super impressed. It’s not that she’s not good; it’s that she’s sort of Streep-ian. You can see her acting. Given her success in winning me over previously, I’m sort of inclined to think this is a matter of the director, the story and perhaps the editing. There’s more of a kind of polite respect here than empathy.

There’s a weird conflict between the married zookeepers, where He’s jealous of Her because of the Nazi, and that felt genuinely false to me. I mean, maybe that sort of melodrama occurred, but I can’t help but feel that if you were risking your life, moment-to-moment, to saves the lives of dozens of others against a recognized evil, you would be especially understanding of each others’ feelings.

I see that my concerns are shared with others who disliked the film—which, I hasten to point out, I didn’t, actually—so I suspect (as usual) it comes down to what you, personally, bring to the film. It’s kind of weird to say “lower your expectations” on this kind of film but, well, it can’t hurt.

Why muddy things up?
Not mentioned at any point is that the zookeepers are Christian, of course.

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