There are some cinematic dramas out there (The 400 Blows being a great example) that actually don’t use schmaltz, melodrama, or clichés in an unsuccessful attempt to wring tears out of it’s passive audiences. A lot of these films are surprisingly not very well known. In fact, they’re covered up with all these recent exercises in faux sentimentality that they’re either ignored by audiences and critics alike or praised by critics but still ignored by audiences who would much rather cry their eyes out through these half-hearted exercises in emotional mushiness than actually discover these precious treasures.
Unfortunately, the fairly recent 2016 movie The Zookeeper’s Wife is most definitely NOT one of those types of films.
First of all, unfortunately for a film that is SUPPOSED to accurately show the horrors of war WITHOUT resorting to schlock and cliches, what we get is exactly the opposite. Right from the opening credits, we get a heavy blast of schmaltzy music, which lasts throughout the film. And as for the storyline…well, while there is no denying it’s emotional impact and inspiration, it certainly could’ve been executed a lot better. The movie kicks off in Warsaw, where the Zabinskis own the local zoo. For a while, there’s peace, happiness, and prosperity. Then the Nazis invade, bombs literally blow the zoo to pieces, all the animals are either gunned down or taken prisoner, and all hell breaks loose. With no furry friends left, save a rabbit or two, the Zabinskis despair. Then the zookeeper’s wife (hence the title), Antonina Zabinska (yes, I spelled that right, save the accents), gets an idea. With some help from her husband, she’ll hide the remaining Jews from the Nazis in her leftover animal cages, providing them food and water every day and even letting them roam the house when the Nazis are gone. However, soon enough, though, the head Nazi zoologist, Dr. Lutz Heck, starts to get suspicious about what REALLY goes on at the Zabinskis’ quaint little zoo. I’ll leave the rest of the plot for you to work out for yourself (trust me, it’s not that hard). Just be sure of one thing: as I found out later through Wikipedia, although most of the plot stays true to the actual account of what happened, for the sake of theatricality, some details are slightly exaggerated, like Heck’s relationship with Antonina (which is taken to the point of him literally forcing himself upon him). And some of the plot devices are so convoluted that you don’t even need to tell me they didn’t really happen in real life. For example: towards the film’s end, Heck frantically chases Antonina’s son through one of the animal cages, catches him, takes him out back, pretends to shoot him, and then drives off. OK, while that MIGHT sound like a good edge-of-your-seat type thrill to maintain the audience’s interest in the film, that’s (most likely) not even CLOSE to what really happened. It’s times like these that make me feel nostalgic for the days when all these “true-life stories” were really just documentaries. Also, while it definitely does show some disturbing scenes involving Jews getting gunned down and sent off to the concentration camps, you do have to admit though, the film’s ultimate purpose is to make you cry. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that, really, but considering the true-life story (as well as the themes), it doesn’t really make for the cohesive (as well as truly moving) picture I was hoping for. On that note, the film provides virtually zero information about the actual war that was raging at about that time (WWII) which was actually BEGUN by Hitler’s invasion of Poland. In fact, for all the historical context the film gives you, Hitler may as well have invaded Poland and held just that country alone hostage until the end of the war (NOT all the other countries he tried to spread his Third Reich to), and the whole “Resistance” movement was just trying to free Poland from Hitler’s grip, not any other countries. Basically if I had directed the film, I would’ve put the historical back in this not-so-historical drama and taken all the non-important sentimental tear-jerking plot devices straight out of it (like the ridiculously overdone and sentimental scene where Antonina manages to cheer up a frightened little girl with a baby bunny) Heck, if it were up to me, I might have even kicked off the hidden-in-one-room premise and made the film into a Rope or even Room style psychological thriller. But since Niki Caro (who actually did make the decent film Whale Rider) directed the film, not me, we get a bogged down schlock-fest filled to the brim with all the mushy cliches out there. OK, OK, considering this is a film that frankly depicts the horrors of the Holocaust, such an assessment is probably far too harsh. The acting is pretty good, with Jessica Chastain and Daniel Brühl delivering top notch performances. And I will give the film credit for not shying away from or sugarcoating the horrors of war and the Holocaust. But still, for a movie touching on those subjects (the Holocaust in particular), it sure could’ve been a lot tougher and edgier.