“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a magical, compelling and horrific story that shows the terrors of the Holocaust by tying the story of one Polish family into a massive web of lives lost and changed. The Zabinski family, the main subjects of the film, are not targeted by the Germans. And yet, they too are prisoners, trapped in their devastated home and forced to conform to ideals that terrify them in order to form a quiet rebellion right under the Germans’ noses.
Rather than relying on arguably overdone violent visuals to provoke emotion, the film instead offers a much more complex political story revolving around the power dynamic between the Germans and the countries that they are in control of. However, aside from the mesmerizing story and beautiful camera work, the film does not dive deeply enough into the characters and their complexities.
After their beloved Warsaw Zoo is bombed, the Zabinski family is forced to allow the German troops to stay on their grounds. Jan (Johan Heldenberg) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain) Zabinski are anti-Hitler, choosing to hide one of their Jewish friends in their attic from day one. However, as time passes and the atrocities of the war become ever more clear, the couple decides that they are not doing enough, and begin to form a sort of underground railroad, hiding Jewish prisoners underneath piles of litter from the ghetto that they bring to feed their pigs, which are being used for meat for the soldiers.
Antonina and Jan are loveable characters. Period. They show almost no weaknesses – being both brave and willing to help those in need; they’re intelligent, kind, beautiful and intuitive with animals. They’re as close as one can get to sainthood. And while this story is based on real people, as an audience member, it feels like there is some human character missing from the two of them. They’re too perfect. We see a bit of a weakness in their relationship at one point of the film, but it is resolved within a few minutes, and does not reflect poorly on either of the characters, leaving both of their personas untouchable.
Because the characters are so loveable, it’s easy to get lost in the romance of the story – which is strange for a Holocaust film. Still, the nights spent around the piano, the beautiful lion cubs that play with the children and the sweet moments between the Zabinskis and their Jewish friends left me smiling. There are a few moments of the film, glimpses, really, where we catch a look into the horrors of the ghetto – but they leave much more up to the imagination than other Holocaust films, suggesting, rather than showing, events. This can seem quite powerful at first, but it also let me forget what I was watching at various points in the film.
And while the story is about the Zabinski family, and not necessarily the individuals that they save, the other characters (especially the Jews) are essential — and we never get to know them. They come and go through the Zabinski home, and though we do form emotional connections with a few, our images of them are still very one-dimensional, and offer little to no understanding of their feelings or experiences. The most frustrating lack of character development, for me, was Urszula, the young Jewish girl that is rescued. I was dying to know more of her story, to hear about her life and to see the world through her eyes. While she did produce some drawings that displayed her feelings, for the importance of her role, I felt that her character and her history were somewhat cast aside.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a beautiful story, shown almost too beautifully, but lacks some aspect of humanity – but it’s almost impossible to sense that while watching the film. It’s absolutely worth the watch — the story is beautiful and unique. However, if you leave feeling like you do when you only have an appetizer at dinner, you’ll soon realize it’s because of the lack of character development.
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
Photo: Focus Features