One silver lining to the current political situation is that at least in a few years we’ll have some new stories to tell about fighting Nazis. Without diminishing the importance of remembering the Holocaust, I respectfully submit that the films on that subject have become formulaic and uninspired, the somber Never Forget equivalents of Hallmark Channel movies.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is the latest well-intentioned but useless dramatization of a true story (adapted from Diane Ackerman’s book), a rote, glossy feel-bad-then-good account of a Polish couple, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who used their empty Warsaw zoo to hide Jews right under the Nazis’ noses. Actually, as the title suggests, it’s more about Antonina (Jessica Chastain), who’s highly skilled in caring for the zoo’s animals but I guess isn’t officially a “zookeeper.” Whatever. In 1939 Poland, there are more pressing concerns than sexism.
The film begins in the summer of that year, with tension in the air but Hitler still inside his borders. It is firmly established that Antonina loves the creatures at her happy little zoo, and that the feeling is mutual. When an elephant has trouble delivering a calf, Antonina is there to save the day, impressing the visiting German zookeepers led by the nice-for-a-Nazi Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). Later, when Warsaw is first attacked, she and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and their little boy, Ryszard (Timothy Radford), scramble to protect the surviving animals. Is this a new twist on the story? Brave civilians hiding animals from the Nazis?
Nope. Having spent every moment of the first part of the film establishing the Zabinskis’ devotion to their animals, director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) eliminates them entirely. The zoo is now empty, with Lutz Heck’s Nazis scientists using it to breed a master race of bison, or something. While pretending to collaborate with the Nazis, Antonina and Jan help Jews escape from the Warsaw ghetto and hide in the zoo’s basements and storerooms. Jan, though, is jealous of Antonina’s friendship with Lutz Heck, fearing she is attracted to him. Tension! Drama!
Meh. The performances are adequate. The screenplay, by Angela Workman (“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”), conveys the events and emotions with perfunctory competence. To the extent that we get to know them (which isn’t much), the rescued Jews pull our heartstrings in a manner that satisfies the minimum requirements. But there is nothing about this story — or at least not in this telling of it — that compels interest to any greater degree than any other Holocaust story you’ve seen, and it’s quite a bit less emotionally impactful than many of them. A movie whose only point is to Never Forget might as well be a paragraph in a textbook.
C (2 hrs., 4 min.; )