Some tales are remarkable yet true, while others are meaningful yet dull. In “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” a regrettable sense of the latter overtakes the former in telling of the Żabińskis, real-life married Polish animal caretakers who saved hundreds of Jews during their country’s Nazi occupation.
“Whale Rider” director Niki Caro’s studiously rendered period epic puts a thickly accented Jessica Chastain front and center as Antonina Żabińska, since Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book culled its history (and title) from access to Antonina’s diaries. But as refreshing as it is to see a woman in an Oskar Schindler-type role get her big movie due, the trappings of handsome blandness, tinny storytelling and thumbnail-sketch war terror prove too much for this story of a beauty fighting beastliness.
It’s difficult enough to draw metaphor from the truth of unspeakable evil: in depicting the strange reality that the Żabińskis hid Jews in cages meant for animals (out of necessity) while outside the zoo, Jews were treated like non-humans by an oppressive regime, a whole discussion could be held about the limits of artistic representation when Hollywood deals with the Holocaust.
Despite the best of intentions, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and its antiseptic heroism is destined to be the type of movie with a simple message of caring for all God’s creatures, with an unsteady portrayal of the wretchedness of killing as it relates to animals and humans. In the beginning, though, set in pre-invasion 1939, Caro gives the Żabińskis’ Warsaw Zoo — dazzlingly recreated by production designer Suzie Davies (“Mr. Turner”) — a magical strangeness.
Chastain’s becalmed, beatific Antonina tends to her menagerie of animals like a Dr. Do-more-than-a-little: pitchforking hay with husband Jan (an effectively solemn Johan Heldenbergh, “The Broken Circle Breakdown”), feeding a hippo, greeting the tigers, nurturing lion cubs inside their spacious home on the zoo’s grounds, and later that night, breaking free of a fancy dinner party — and its political talk of Hitler’s intentions — to tend to a suffocating newborn elephant.
Also at the party is the Berlin Zoo’s visiting head Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), who takes a liking to Antonina, enough so that when Germany invades Poland that fall, he reappears at the bomb-ravaged Warsaw site afterward, in the newly appointed position of Hitler’s chief zoologist, to offer to save the Żabińskis’ most prize animals. (The creatures that survived, that is; we see many animal casualties among the freely roaming four-legged, while Nazi soldiers take potshots at others for sport.)
Heck wants to transport the best back to Germany as part of an eugenics program to breed super-beasts, but the Żabińskis make a counteroffer: they’ll start a pig farm at the zoo to provide meat for soldiers, using as feed the garbage collected from the newly-formed Jewish ghettos.
Heck, played by Brühl with understated squirreliness, okays the idea with a dose of black humor: “A tref farm fed by Jewish garbage, right under their noses!” What he doesn’t know is what Jan and Antonina plan to do behind his back: smuggle back Jews from the ghetto along with the refuse, shelter them, secure them fake passports and get them out of Poland.
Because, really, what else are people so obviously good and honorable going to do? Therein lies the movie’s central problem — there’s little that’s compellingly complex and human about the Żabińskis regarding their herculean effort, and little to shade the Jewish characters beyond their role as herded protectees. Chastain’s fauna-friendly, marquee decency is attractive, sure, but the real work seems to have gone into her oft-unintelligible, Russian-inflected Polish squeak, which too often makes her sound like someone simultaneously defying Nazis and learning English.
Beyond an understandable but ham-fisted effort in Angela Workman’s screenplay to make Antonina’s exploitation of Heck’s attraction to her a wedge in the couple’s marriage, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” segues into a straightforward good vs. evil suspense yarn once the plan goes into effect: escape mechanics, close calls, tears and kindness, and brief reminders of Nazi brutality.
Caro handles the tension adequately, save the ill-advised use of the offscreen-gunshot gimmick to briefly, brazenly dupe us into believing a major character is killed, and turning the floating ashes of an incinerated ghetto into a gotcha moment of cinematic prettiness. (“It’s snowing!” we hear a child say.) Such manipulation only ever trivializes the horror of the time.
What you keep waiting for are the trickier emotional layers, maybe the recognition of how it might have been agonizing for animal lovers like Jan and Antonina to slaughter pigs for their scheme. Yet even that much thorny suffering is beyond the cleanly delineated virtuousness on display, which unfortunately results in the filmmakers’ discordant need to end their slice of annihilation history on superficially positive notes (reunion, recognition, the fate of the zoo).
The Żabińskis were as unfailingly heroic as it gets, but memorably rendering a resistance shouldn’t be so resistant itself to the rough-and-tumble humanity of the details, and the unsentimental doom that shrouded it all.