The Zookeeper’s Wife is a movie that I desperately wanted to like more than I did. It’s a story of wartime struggle in a very particular and unique circumstance that calls for a sort of quiet heroism that the film chooses to show through a distinctly female perspective. On paper, this sounds like an awesome expression of perseverance through tragedy as a politically powerless woman finds power in saving lives without recognition or reward. In practice, though, The Zookeeper’s Wife only pushes half the equation, and it consequently gets lost in the milieu of similar wartime survival narratives without adding anything significant to the table.
In 1939 Warsaw, Poland, as German occupation looms on the horizon, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zebinski (Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain) provide one of the city’s most consistently appealing attractions. However, once the Nazis invade the city, the zoo and most of its animal population are destroyed, thereby destroying the livelihood of the Zebinskis, forcing them to appeal to Hitler’s chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), to let them keep the property operational as a pig farm. However, what Lutz doesn’t know is that the Zebinskis start using runs into the Jewish slum, rather than to gather trash for the pigs to eat, to smuggle Jews into their basement for later transfer to safehouses and sanctuary.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is most effective when it focuses on the tension of wartime survival. The Zebinskis are putting their lives on the line for no reason other than their moral certainty, and the constant tug and pull of being observed by their biggest threat wears on them even as their certainty never wavers. Their relationship is put to the constant test, as Antonina is forced to lead on Lutz’s sexually domineering advances even as she fears and despises him. All of this is presented against a backdrop of period costuming and set design that highlight the beauty of the era’s Polish culture while contrasting it against the destructive power of the Nazi forces.
But when it comes right down to it, for a film titled The Zookeeper’s Wife, it feels more limited by Antonina’s perspective than enhanced by it. Antonina is a very passive character, a quiet voice that convinces her husband to do the right thing and a calming influence on her Jewish guests. She has an inner strength that is only rarely outwardly expressed, and the film’s most tense scenes are forcibly removed from her perspective as she isn’t present during her husband’s harrowing smuggling trips. This leads to a disconnect between our ostensible protagonist and the action we see on screen, and Antonina feels like just as much a passenger as the audience, growing little and actively engaging even less.
This isn’t to say that the real figure of Antonina Zebinski wasn’t a brave woman, nor is that to say that Jessica Chastain’s performance is unrealistic—given the material it’s actually quite good. However, a film’s job is to make those elements engaging, and by strapping itself down with such an inactive protagonist who has no discernible arc beyond dogged survival, The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t find much to say about a woman’s place in wartime or even a broader analysis of suffering. The best it can manage is comparing Antonina’s compassion for animals with her compassion for humanity, and that feels like pathetically little.