The Zookeeper’s Wife

This is an average film that failed to deliver on its potential.

The Zookeeper's WifeGiven the fact that The Zookeeper’s Wife was directed by the gifted Niki Caro, who previously brought us the very special McFarland U.S.A. (2015), North Country (2005) and Whale Rider (2002), I never imagined that this film would end up being its own worst enemy. Nonetheless, I suspect that many of you will leave the theater thinking like I did, “I went in expecting a whole lot more.”

There are two basic reasons for the film’s shortcomings. First and foremost, how can any movie taking place in Warsaw, Poland, during the Nazi occupation that began in 1939 end up with a PG-13 rating? Put another way, it is hard to imagine any movie centering on the Nazi liquidation of Polish Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto being treated as a family film. The rating decision by Director Caro robbed The Zookeeper’s Wife of its emotional impact.

The film’s second handicap was that every German and Polish character spoke fluent English. This created an artificial atmosphere that would have been avoided had the producers simply decided to make this a foreign film with English subtitles. As an analogy, imagine a European remake of Gone With the Wind where all of the characters spoke German.

However, I don’t want to suggest that the film lacked dramatic value. Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh give wonderful performances as a husband and wife dedicated to their zoo inhabitants. In addition, their attempts over a period of time ranging from 1939 to 1945 to help as many Jews as possible flee the ghetto and hide underground in their zoo is as admirable as it is stirring.

In addition, the talented Daniel Brühl appears as a Nazi zoologist in love with Ms. Chastain. Let me just say that he was far better in Captain American: Civil War (2016) and the powerful Rush (2013) where he played Niki Lauda.

Though The Zookeeper’s Wife is a film based on a popular book, the film gradually lost it’s magic. To begin with, despite the fact that tens of thousands of Warsaw Jews were sent to their deaths in a fashion described long ago by Leon Uris’ “Mila 18”, you see far more animals slaughtered by Nazis than you do human beings. While I, like many, hated to see these lovely animals shot and killed, the sad fact remains that the film left you guessing as to the horrific fate of Polish victims of this ghastly Nazi onslaught.

Any modest student of history knows that you can’t dodge the reality of the Nazi Holocaust. Millions of men, women and young children died in concentration camps and the devastation inflicted in Warsaw resulted in the fiery destruction of the Jewish ghetto.

Unfortunately, Director Caro made the mistake of making a Holocaust film a warmhearted movie with a happy ending. Let me close by simply stating that the ending sought to have you smiling with satisfaction instead of mourning the annihilation of a large swath of mankind.