During the second hour of Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, one of the children who Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) is hiding inside the basement of the Warsaw zoo from the Nazis during World War II points to what looks like snow falling outside a window. When Zabinski goes outside to see for herself, she discovers that it’s not snow but ashes coming from the nearby Warsaw Ghetto, which the Nazis are burning to the ground. Given the horrifying context behind the ash that fills the air around the zoo, one may question the picturesque nature of the scene—and this moment, in its intermixing of the bleak and beautiful, is indicative of the film as a whole.
Based on the true story of Antonina and her zoologist husband Jan’s (Johan Heldenbergh) heroic efforts to save hundreds of Jews by secretly housing them in the Warsaw zoo, The Zookeeper’s Wife is the sort of glossy historical drama that suppresses the darker aspects of the atrocities it chronicles for the sake of tasteful, crowd-pleasing affirmation. Even Nazi turpitude goes down easy here. Antonina and Jan’s main antagonist is zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), who, before WWII, is presented as a sympathetic figure, with a love of animals to match Antonina’s. But when we subsequently see him donning a Nazi uniform, spearheading the transport of some of the zoo’s animals to Germany and the heartless killing of other creatures, he’s instantly reduced to a mustache-twirling villain—and he becomes even more one-dimensionally brutish as he’s increasingly drawn to Antonina.
It’s a tribute to the inherent fascination of the true story The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on that the film still manages to be so frequently affecting. Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman, adapting Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book, treat this material as an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama, and with the help of an impassioned Chastain, they effectively deliver emotional high points in ways that only occasionally feel heavy-handed and manipulative, with Harry Gregson-Williams’s score the most egregious offender.
While the film paints its historical canvas in broad strokes, there are some nuances in the characterizations that complicate the otherwise hagiographic portrait of the Zabinskis. In order for Antonina and Jan to carry out their plan of using the zoo they own as a front to hide both Jews and animals (the latter from being subjected to genetic experiments by Heck), Jan tacitly allows Antonina to use Lutz’s obvious attraction to her in order to manipulate him as a diversionary tactic. Though Jan inevitably becomes jealous when he sees Lutz making romantic passes at his wife, more interesting is the effect this has on Antonina. Though she recognizes the necessity of using her sexual wiles in this way, she can’t help but be repelled by the lengths she feels forced to go to in order to earn Lutz’s trust, and that anguish is etched into every expression on Chastain’s face when her character interacts with Brühl’s. The nobility of Antonia and Jan’s long-range mission is never in doubt, but in these scenes The Zookeeper’s Wife flirts with an “ends justifying the means” moral relativism that gives it welcome hints of ambiguity.
Ultimately, though, Antonina’s affection for animals offers the film’s freshest angle on an otherwise typical uplifting Holocaust docudrama. That devotion is established early on in an intense scene in which she risks her life to rescue a baby elephant from death, lavishing the animal with the same kind of love that she later brings to all the Jews who she and Jan protect. But it’s a monologue she gives during the film’s first hour, in which she contrasts the pure-hearted innocence of non-human creatures with the duplicity of which men are capable, that reverberates most throughout the film, suggesting a vision verging on the misanthropic. Though The Zookeeper’s Wife celebrates the triumph of compassion over evil, there are moments here which carry the more subversive implication that animals are, in some ways, better than humans because of their innocence and lack of guile. As Antonina says, “You look into their eyes and you know what exactly is in their hearts.” When it’s not overly trying to inspire, the film imbues a pessimistic view of the seemingly bottomless depths of human cruelty with sorrowful tragic force.