There are great movies then there are the good ones. I am afraid, The Zookeeper’s Wife Movie falls in the latter category. A historical movie is supposed to put you right there up in time amongst the real characters. It has to be immensely dramatic, it has to carve out pathos, and it has to create some real tension or the audience will be able to see through it all. Even though The Zookeeper’s Wife endeavours hard to reach that greatness meter via its gorgeous plot, there is something that stops it from making it all the way up there.
Now that we have that out of the way, let me add, The Zookeeper’s Wife Movie isn’t bad at all. It has a powerful plot to take the movie chugging to fruition. It tells you a lost story of two legends who saved hundreds of lives during the Fuhrer invasion of Poland during the World War II. There are two distinctive poignant times in the movie that leave you brooding for hours if you actually stop to think. I will share them both dissecting how and why they were the most powerful moments in The Zookeeper’s Wife Movie.
Plot of The Zookeeper’s Wife Movie (Spoilers)
The movie is based on the eponymous book by Diane Ackerman and starts off with Antonina Zabinski, the protagonist, pedaling off to her daily routine to take care of her and her husband’s immensely popular Warsaw Zoo. She is a brave woman who likes to put herself in the vanguard when things go south as far as her animals are concerned. It gets proven soon when she resuscitates a baby elephant amidst the chaos of its mother or father trying to stop her from channeling a CPR. That backdrop is preceded with a quick acquaintance to Lutz Heck, played superbly by Daniel Bruhl, the head of the Berlin Zoo, who is also Hitler‘s Zoologist.
With the onset of war everything changes. The bombardment of Warsaw leaves everybody aghast as many poor caged creatures perish, and many others are left to stray. Lutz offers to save some of the rare breeds by offering to take them to his zoo. Antonina agrees without taking her husband’s consent.
Maybe that’s why I love animals so much, you look in their eyes and you know exactly what’s in their hearts.
Lutz Heck turns out to be a vile backstabbing bastard when he comes rampaging to the zoo killing the remaining animals considering it to be an act of mercy since the animals were bound to die in cold. The monstrosity continues with the German invasion that sees Jews driven into Ghettos.
Meanwhile, two of Zabinski’s friends seek refuge for a friend’s insect collection in the basement of their zoo. They offer to hide Magda, their friend, as well, overlooking what it could do to them if they get caught somehow. Then begins the kind charade of trying to give the victims a sanctuary to save them from the tyranny under the pretext of building a pig farm to feed the German army.
It is one of those gut-wrenching chapters in the history of mankind that cannot be condemned enough. We find a girl in trauma who is raped by two Nazi guards which the Zabinskis save. There are many others tied to a similar fate, people quaking to the thought of the torture Nazis inflict on people. Ghettos are created, people are burnt alive. Concentration camps, a surefire train to death, deliver people to their evident fate.
When Jan is trying to save as many as he could, he comes across Dr. Janusz Korczak played by Arnost Goldflam whom he beseeches to come with him. But Janusz refuses saying it would create havoc in the minds of the children he was taking care of. Watching him being transferred to a death camp alongside countless children will rip your heart out. It is hands down one of the most shattering moments you will find in The Zookeeper’s Wife movie.
When you see innocent children asking Jan Zabinski to lift them up to be put on cattle trains, I think to watch that naivety in their eyes did it for me. Their unaware eyes reek of innocence as if boarding the train was the only thing that mattered to them. No one had any idea if they were being taken to be slaughtered. But people like Jan and Janusz, who knew the real truth, putting on a smiling face was the hardest thing to do. You are almost tempted to utter out the truth in front of them, but watching those unbothered eyes who just need to follow the horde is severely heartbreaking.
The Final Climax
In an attempt to fight the good fight, Jan gets shot in the neck during the Warsaw Uprising. Two years later trying to coax the whereabouts of her husband, Antonina tries to put on one final makeup to face the disgusting Lutz Heck once again. She is willing to do whatever it takes to know whether her husband is alive. Lutz sniffs out the truth blaming her for housing resistance in her zoo. Antonina runs for home, helping everyone escape just in time before Lutz comes with an army to hunt.
On finding out the truth, Lutz Heck is mad and catches hold of her boy Ryszard. Breaking down profusely Antonina begs him to let him go. That’s that another moment of profound grief in the movie when you actually hear the shot go Bam! In that dark moment of pain, you can’t empathize for Antonina enough. Her constant imploration trying to get her kid away from harm’s way, followed by the realization of her child’s death, are immensely agonizing.
It is a relief to see Lutz changing his mind. Ryszard is still alive, but you are heartbroken enough to have lived a tortuous ending already. But it is extremely satisfying too. In the end, after the war, returns Jan to the zoo, and you feel great watching the family reunited.
The curtain falls and along with that the truth about the lives The Zabinskis saved flares up on the big screen. Hundreds of lives out of which just two couldn’t make it. The rest of them owe their lives to the selfless Zabinskis.
The movie doesn’t score well in screenplay either. Nothing really that blows you away except for the one liner I had mentioned above.
You can order the movie here:
Issues with The Zookeeper’s Wife Movie
I haven’t had the good hap of reading the book by Diane Ackerman. I am pretty sure a lot of things couldn’t make it. After watching this movie you will realize that there must have been something more and that went missing when Niki Caro, the director, was busy arraying things together for the big screen. You feel the lack of emotions in it as if something real and concrete was overlooked big time.
Was it the absence of shattering music to help put things in perspective? Was it Jessica Chastain’s struggling accent where she couldn’t play the real ‘her’? Could it be the movie dialogues? Meaning the not so powerful screenplay? Or was it the direction as a whole? You see when you try to think hard, a lot of symphonies play and they all appear to be flawed.
The movie has a contrived feel to it, that tumbles down its realism. You are not actually feeling the right emotions. For instance, when Jan tries to communicate how he has been busy out there trying to save lives, and what all things he has seen on field whilst Antonina was busy having a fun time tending Lutz and playing piano, you don’t feel the real soreness there. The drama was poorly done. Children with outspread arms, if only Niki Caro had decided to milk it more, the poetry in it could have come tearing our eyes out. But no, she just let it be nothing but a mere stare.
Then there was that weird shot of elephant being shot which couldn’t be properly depicted even from three quick snipped angles. You see Niki struggle there to get a shot.
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The Final Verdict
If you overlook the moviemaking skills of Niki Caro for a while, and try to concentrate on what the movie is all about, it will surely bring tears to your eyes. The Zabinskis need to be celebrated. Their humongous feat needs to be applauded. There’s not a morsel of incertitude there! But to think The Zabinskis deserve a better flick, now that’s not at all crazy talk.
The movie is worth watching, even though it doesn’t manage to weave out what Steven Spielberg did with Schindler’s List, but hey it is still something.
You can check out the trailer of The Zookeeper’s Wife Movie here: