*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
Depending on the location, World War Two lasted anywhere between four and eight years. Nearly every country in the world participated in the war, in some way or another, and it’s estimated that 1.9 billion people fought in the war. That’s not including the people who died as a result but did no actual fighting. So why is it that, almost seventy years later, we are still incapable of telling more than one story about a time that affected everyone and everywhere? That’s all The Zookeeper’s Wife is – the same story with the same villains and the same lukewarm techniques to make its audience feel like they need to cry, even though they knew this was how the story was most likely going to go. This is not to say that the stories of people who saved lives during the war are unimportant. Those people and what they risked is nothing short of amazing. The problem is that we’ve told so many stories of heroes who saved people from the Nazis that, other than a couple gimmicks, they all seem the same now. Whatever emotional punch The Zookeeper’s Wife might have had is lost when you realize that the “zoo” of it all is less important than the title makes it seem. It’s not a bad movie – it’s just not a new one.
In the Poland of 1939, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) run the Warsaw Zoo with Jan’s analytical mind and Antonina’s tender love and care of the animals. This does not go unnoticed by the chief zoologist of Germany, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). When the Nazis invade Poland, the bombings cause many of the animals in the zoo to be killed, and the Zabinskis are allowed to keep their home only to help raise pigs for the Nazi army and help Heck breed an Auroch, a large type of wild cattle that has been extinct for several hundred years. The Zabinkis offer to take in a Jewish friend, hiding her from the soldiers that use their leftover cages as an armory, and as they begin to see the horrible conditions of the ghetto in their town, they begin to smuggle Jews out to hide them in their basement, using a system of cars and passports to smuggle the hidden to safer locations. As Heck begins to take a closer interest in Antonina, she is forced to play a dangerous game to keep his interest and goodwill to protect their home, and keeping him away from the men, women, and children that hide under his feet.
It seems like every few years, there is at least one of these World War Two movies coming out, and they all have to have something that sets them apart from the others, right? Otherwise we have no interest in seeing it. In the case of The Zookeeper’s Wife, it’s all about the animals – the trailers are filled with them, from bunnies to little lion cubs to towering elephants, and that’s the new element that we haven’t heard from these stories before. It soon becomes obvious, however, that the zoo is far smaller in the narrative than the trailers made it seem. The bombings that jumpstart the plot about twenty minutes in take many of the animals out of the equation, and the rest of them are soon moved to the zoo in Berlin (far from where we as an audience will ever go), leaving only the humans behind for the rest of our two hours in the theater. With the new niche out of the way, what are we left with? Well, it’s not much, sadly. Chastain is a good actress, but her character is bordering on the edge of a Mary Sue, and that makes her actions throughout the story cloying and bland, with no room to grow or gain our admiration, even though what she’s doing is completely respectable. Brühl is also given a short end of the stick, because even though he is completely convincing as the threatening Nazi figure, it’s not all that hard to play – Nazis are some of the easiest villains to throw into a story. His despicable nature is easy to hate and easy to write off, because there’s nothing new about anything he’s doing.
Another part of the overall familiarity of The Zookeeper’s Wife is in it’s inability to really connect with anyone other than its saviors. Antonina and Jan are the main characters, and they not only receive all the development (at least of what development there is), but they are the ones you see the most of and are going to remember when it’s all over. Even though the film is meant to highlight the suffering of the Jewish people who are being rescued, none of those characters are particularly fleshed out, other than the traumatized girl (Shira Haas) rescued by Jan from the ghetto at the beginning of their mission. Many of the Jews never receive names at all, and those who do are very easily mixed up. At one point one character is said to have died from an ulcer, and you are under the impression it is someone you’ve already met. Later, that character shows up very much alive, and you are left scrambling to try and figure out who is the one who is supposed to be dead and what relation he has to the characters in front of you at that moment, only to realize you can’t figure it out without reading through a plot synopsis (and even then it’s not really a big help). We spend a lot of time trying to highlight Antonina’s changing role of mother and caretaker as her life crumbles around her that we almost skip over the lives of the people the movie is meant to be about; the people whose lives are being destroyed far more utterly than by just housing Nazis during the day.
So is it at all possible to create a film about World War Two that doesn’t sound like anything else? I’m sure it can be done – with such a long timespan and so many people involved, there have to be more stories out there that are not reliant on the typical “savior” main characters (even if they have to deal with the same villains all the time). A good place to start would probably be by getting out of Europe, and I’m not saying that going to America is the answer (that would probably make it worse). But there are so many other stories, so many ways to discuss the ways that World War Two impacted the entire planet, not just Germany, Poland, England and America (because those seem to be where all our movies come from now). Russia is a huge country with a huge involvement in the war, why not focus on some of the stories or impact there? It’s a wide world of stories out there, and no matter how awful one part of that war was, there are so many others that are still important.
3 / 5
I wish there had been more baby lions. I also really wish you could cuddle baby lions.