When it came to saving lives during World War II, Oskar Schindler had his factory, Leopold Socha had the Lwów sewers, and Jan and Antonina Żabiński had the Warsaw Zoo, transforming abandoned cages into the unlikeliest of sanctuaries. Of all the places to protect Jewish refugees, the bombed-out bestiary made for a uniquely cinematic hideaway while yielding just the sort of triumph-of-the-will story most audiences prefer to hear when the Holocaust is mentioned: one where both human and animal lives are spared, accentuating happy endings amid so much devastation.
Speaking of accents, that’s precisely where director Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife” goes awry, as Jessica Chastain wrestles to sound as Polish as possible while others in the ensemble — from German-born Daniel Brühl, whose English is impeccable, to foreign-sounding Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh as Antonina’s Fuhrer-defying husband Jan — operate using a hodgepodge of different Euro inflections, all of them speaking a language that none of the characters actually did.
This tendency to reenact world history in English is a common enough convention, and yet, in this case, it’s enough to derail the earnest efforts of everyone involved, since so much of the work they spend “acting” seems dedicated to navigating his imaginary stew of languages, with the result that everyone but Brühl sounds like a poorly educated Polish immigrant, rather than the fiercely intelligent resistance fighters that they were, while the Nazi character comes off sounding positively refined.
This failing is a real shame, considering such feats of heroism tend to earn Oscars for those involved, and it’s high time for Chastain — coupled with the fact that “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is such a great story to begin with, but suffers under the weight of this tongue-tying distraction. Still, Chastain does great work despite the accent (on which she toiled with dialogue coach Joan Washington), capturing the spirit of a humanist veterinarian from the opening scene. Her husband may hold the medical degree, but it is animal-loving Antonina who intervenes to revive a baby elephant, risking her own life as the struggling calf’s agitated mother looks on.
She’s a curious kind of mother herself, allowing her young son to nap amid lion cubs, suggesting the unique kinship this family felt toward the animals under their care. True to form in a film that generates greater interest in its critters than the human souls at stake, these early 1939-set scenes between the Żabińskis and their charges are among the film’s most memorable, revealing not only the behind-the-scenes dynamics of an art-nouveau European zoo, but also the horrifying way in which animals, too naïve to understand what’s happening, react to something as potentially apocalyptic as an air raid.
Following the bombing, the surviving creatures are agitated practically out of their hides, as Caro treats audiences to a surreal montage in which exotic creatures roam the smoldering remains of what were once their cages — a surreal menagerie-turned-battlefield in which the incoming German soldiers have no choice but to shoot the majestic creatures.
As the movie’s complicated villain, Brühl plays Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck, who begins the movie as an ally of the Żabińskis, and who agrees to let them continue living on the Warsaw Zoo premises even after the prize animals are shipped away to Berlin, but whose sinister side soon reveals itself. Like the Nazi doctors who conducted cruel and unusual medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners, Heck was obsessed with eugenics — enough so that the Żabińskis were able to keep him distracted with an elaborate breeding project, by which he attempts to bring back the country’s lost line of aurochs (a giant bison-like creature, now extinct).
Meanwhile, Jan and Antonina went full steam ahead with their own plan to save their persecuted countrymen from extinction. While German soldiers made camp at the now-desolate Warsaw Zoo, the couple transforms their home, cages, and underground tunnels into a conduit for refugees from the nearby Warsaw Ghetto. On the pretext of collecting trash to feed Heck’s pigs, Jan drives a giant truck into the sequestered Jewish neighborhood, smuggling out first his friends, and later the most wretched among them — including a teenage girl Caro shows molested by soldiers, whom Antonina later treats like a wounded animal.
True to Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book (which in turn was drawn from Antonina’s diaries), “The Zookeeper’s Wife” focuses on the title character, not the zookeeper himself, despite the fact that Jan took the greatest risk. It’s an interesting tactic, one that underscores a wife’s importance even at times when women didn’t necessarily enjoy equal rights or respect, but it was a mistake not to cast a more striking actor in Jan’s role, even if the intention was not to let him overshadow Antonina’s contributions.
Watching these incredible events unfold, one could leap to any number of conclusions about the thin line that separates human barbarism from the animal instinct to survive. That would be plenty poetic, but only goes so far, considering that Caro’s movie fails to muster even a fraction of the suspense such life-and-death material naturally demands. The stakes are enormous should the Żabińskis get caught, but the tension never materializes, even during the final showdown with Heck.
Instead, the movie contents itself to deliver that overly correct handsomeness of certain period pieces, where hot-blooded events of our not-so-distant past are presented as meticulous taxidermy specimens. In service of her most demanding movie yet, “Whale Rider” director Caro pays considerable attention to the film’s costumes, sets, and emotion-swelling score — not to mention all those unfortunate accents — but somehow never fully re-animates these remarkable events.
No doubt some of the blame falls on Angela Workman, who has scripts in the hands of some of the town’s top directors (from Spielberg to Fincher), but has yet to see any of her work translated into a genuinely thrilling movie. There’s no nice way to put it in this case, but “The Zookeeper’s Wife” has the unfortunate failing of rendering its human drama less interesting than what happens to the animals — and for a subject as damaging to our species as the Holocaust, that no small shortcoming.