Negative commentary is a fruitless endeavor, however I think it is important to recognize films that were almost greats. The Zookeeper’s Wife was impressive in scenes, but seemed to miss an important mark by the time the credits rolled. There are so many Holocaust/WWII movies it has nearly become its own genre, so in that regard it is impressive when a movie depicting a holocaust story is distinctive. In how many films can we see people filed into trucks and still be expected to cry. No matter ones age, heritage, or education level, we are all familiar with the horrific details of the holocaust and it takes a special cinematic perspective to make an audience feel like they are seeing something new. The Zookeeper’s Wife achieves this to a degree that is mesmerizing. The concept of burning down the jewish ghettos is not introduced through flames and nazi uniforms, but rather with Jessica Chastain gently walking outside into a flurry of gray ash swirling in the air. In this film, the post-bombing destruction and debris is not shown in fallen buildings and rubble, it is depicted through charred birds, bloody polar bears, detached zebra limbs, chaotic screeching monkeys, and freed lions roaming the Warsaw streets. Seeing this violence in a purely animalistic nature taps into the brutality that we may have fallen numb to through visual conditioning.
However, well directed scenes and shots are not all that is necessary to make a film whole, and where this story fell short was in its direct emotional connection to the holocaust. First let me start by referencing what is probably my favorite holocaust-based film, Sophie’s Choice. When Sophie is forced by Nazi officials to choose one of her two children to send into the camps, a visceral heartbreak can be felt and emotional context is given to this vicious historical period that most of us have only read about. The plot of The Zookeeper’s Wife revolves around a polish family and a handful of their jewish refuge “guests” who are mostly barren of personality throughout the film. The movie, a true story, closes in an almost completely happy ending with the only casualties amounting to animals in the zoo and 2/300 “guests”. The Zabinski family finds their way back together, a trying journey not shown, and the zoo is restored. The film lacks reverence to the millions of people who didn’t escape the brutality and hellish ordeals inside of the camps, and aside from a few quick wide shots, there is little acknowledgment to their existence at all. The Zabinski family was a valiant clan of heroes with an inspiring story to tell, but this film would have been more effective if the plot had been concretely connected to the people and the cause they were fighting for. Had this story been able to blend its unique perspective of the holocaust, with authentic emotion and consequences, The Zookeeper’s Wife could quite possibly have been an instant classic.