Holocaust films are tricky.
There’s a fine line a director needs to walk between emotionally engaging the audience and exploiting the subject matter. At times, The Zookeeper’s Wife delves into, if not sappy, sap-adjacent territory, but for the most part, director Niki Caro presents a dramatic and intriguing story of Warsaw under siege during World War II. The film chronicles the real-life story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, zookeepers and owners of the Warsaw Zoo. The film is told through the eyes of the Zabinski family (mainly Antonina’s). Their fear and confusion during the German invasion of Poland, and their eventual realization of the horrors of the Jewish ghetto, motivate their attempts to save the lives of both friends and strangers.
Jessica Chastain turns in an expectedly solid performance as the title character, depicting a strong, independent woman with the ability to soothe both man and beast. There are perhaps a few too many scenes of her character mothering cute, furry creatures while she speaks of the horrors of war, but the two-time Oscar-nominated actress is nearly perfect in her ability to stir emotion and empathy on the part of the viewer, without overdoing it or over-emoting. Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh (you may know him from The Broken Circle Breakdown) is a stand-out as Dr. Zabinski. But Shira Haas steals the film in her portrayal of Urszula, a young Jewish girl whose treatment by Nazi soldiers symbolizes Warsaw’s decimation at the hands of the Germans.
While not a powerhouse film on the level of Schindler’s List or The Pianist, this movie still packs an emotional punch, and tells a historically relevant story of which many don’t have knowledge. Andrij Parekh’s cinematography is captivating, and the scale of the film is impressive. Overall, the acting, visuals, and story are all first rate. There are a few elements of the storytelling where a “less is more” approach could have helped. It’s hard to avoid predictability when telling a story based on a true story, but perhaps a couple of the expected clichés could have been presented in a more unique way. Despite this, the film is moving and well-made.