You can never tell who your enemies are or who to trust. “Maybe that’s why I loved animals so much,” Antonina (Jessica Chastain) tells Urszula (Shira Haas), a traumatised, young Jewish woman from the Warsaw Ghetto, who Antonina and husband Jan are sheltering in the basement of her villa, situated in the city’s zoo.
Antonina’s love of animals is reinforced, to almost comic levels, in the opening scenes of The Zookeeper’s Wife. Viewers are introduced to the array of animals in her care as she cycles through the zoo, offering an apple here, a pat there. This idyll is soon shattered with the onset of war.
There is some fine acting here. Brave and compassionate, Chastain is compelling as she balances her roles as wife, mother and protector of people and animals. The scenes between her and Daniel Brühl, who plays Hitler’s chief zoologist, Lutz Heck, are suitably strained.
The Żabińskis persuade Heck to allow them to turn the zoo into a pig farm, providing meat to German soldiers. Under the pretext of collecting pigswill, Jan regularly drives a truck into the ghetto, smuggling Jews out. There are brief moments of tension and glimmers of hardship and Nazi aggression in the ghetto but, considering the extreme levels of risk, it all appears relatively easy to execute.
Scenes of Jewish suffering are kept to a minimum. Crucially, the script does not allow for much development of Jewish characters, apart from Urszula. The brief appearance of Janusz Korczak, the renowned educator, doctor and orphanage director is not explained nor given significant context. Instead, Jews are often shown as groups of figures who are portrayed in clichés. While the ghetto is being liquidated, Urszula leads a Seder in the villa and is heard singing the Ma Nishtanah.
Later, Jan helps load children on to a cattle train — their arms raised in what is an obvious reference to the iconic image of a little boy from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Ultimately, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a stylistic, Holocaust-lite film that, despite its strong narrative potential, lacks the required moral complexity and depth required in the telling of a story of such courage and singularity.