The Bock’s Office: ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ meaningful Holocaust melodrama

Andy Bockelman
Antonina (Jessica Chastain) plays with a pair of lion cubs in "The Zookeeper's Wife." The movie is about the owners of a zoo in World War II Poland who help smuggle Jewish refugees away from oppression.

If you go...

“Title,” rated PG-13 Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars Running time: 126 minutes Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton and Daniel Brühl Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.

Looking at the denizens of a typical zoo may fill the average person with either wonder or outrage, depending on their stance on animals behind bars. Yet, you can’t help but respect such a structure when it’s used for a noble purpose like that of “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”

If you go…

“Title,” rated PG-13

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

Running time: 126 minutes

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton and Daniel Brühl

Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.

In 1939, one of the prime attractions of Poland is the Warsaw Zoo, renowned for its collection of exotic animals as well as the level of care the furry and feathered creatures receive from proprietor Dr. Jan Zabinski, his wife Antonina (Johan Heldenbergh, Jessica Chastain) and their staff.

However, the idyllic menagerie is not spared from the onslaught that comes in wartime, and the zoo is ruined when German forces invade the neighboring country. What animals aren’t killed in the bombing are either put down by Nazi soldiers or relocated to Berlin under the supervision of Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), Hitler’s chief zoologist.

The Zabinski forges an agreement that they will be allowed to stay on the premises to operate a pig farm to provide sustenance for the soldiers stationed there, but Jan and Antonina want to do more for the people they see being oppressed, eventually working out a system to smuggle residents of the Jewish ghettos into the zoo and out of the country, all under the noses of the Nazis.

If Chastain hasn’t yet proven herself one of the greatest talents of her generation, this only serves to further that argument in an excellent showing as a woman of infinite compassion for humanity and deep love for the animal kingdom. What’s more, in her use of the Polish accent, she seems to be channeling Meryl Streep’s flawless dialect in “Sophie’s Choice.”

Belgian actor Heldenbergh matches her as her resolute husband, who puts his life on the line time and again by finding and sneaking refugees onto their property ultimately joining the Warsaw Uprising once he sees there’s a limit to how much he can do otherwise.

Still, Antonina is the one who most contend with the romantic machinations of Heck, with Brühl at his weaselly best as the officer whose only interest in animals — and people, for that matter — is one of conquest, control and personal legacy. There’s a depth to his fiendish character that is rarely seen in the portrayal of those taking orders from Der Führer.

Even so, with the many legends of failed Nazi plots that swirl around, Heck’s plan to resurrect the long-extinct auroch has to be one of the most insane.

Apart from the feigned intimacy between Antonina and Heck, as well as Prague filming locations, the adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book about the Zabinskis aims for authenticity without much graphic representation of the time period.

The most disturbing and most effective reminder of the kind of injustices suffered by the Jews of Europe comes in the form of a pre-teen girl (Shira Haas), shown beaten and bloodied after a brutal rape by soldiers.

The subtext speaks for itself throughout the film, as does the irony that a location that could be viewed as a prison of sorts is repurposed to provide an opportunity for freedom for people who have been thoroughly dehumanized.

When you’re willing to submerge yourself in a garbage truck filled with pig slop, you must be desperate.

Sadly, the historical relevance of this true story of the rescue of hundreds of Jews outweighs the film’s realization of it, not because of poor performances or shoddy material but an overlong, sometimes repetitive telling that only occasionally captures the harrowing, suspenseful nature of life in World War II Europe.

It may not compare to Holocaust heavyweights like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Schindler’s List,” “Life Is Beautiful” or even the underrated “Defiance,” yet “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is still an important feature about a subject that can’t be overly discussed.

It’s no accident that an elephant figures prominently into the story — never forget.

Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or or follow him on Twitter @TheBocksOffice.

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