THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE Review
Director: Niki Caro
Genre: War Drama
Every once in awhile it’s good to have a reminder of the heinous times our world has seen, but not without a glimmer of faith in humanity. Especially now, in such times of fear and uncertainty, it is important to recognize the horrors that man is capable of and be sure to avoid ever letting history repeat itself. A brutal watch, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a poignant portrayal of the incredible true story of a family that sheltered and saved Jewish people during the Holocaust. Through its use of animals, intimate storytelling, pleasing aesthetics, and empathetic characters, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is not just another war movie; it is a completely heartbreaking watch.
There is a lot more violence shown than one would expect for a film that was advertised to be quite family-friendly, but the honesty to such violence is appreciated in that it stays true to the story and doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of the suffering that has occurred. Using a good mix of emotional beats, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE emphasizes kindness and compassion while staying true to the horrific brutality that was the truth of the Holocaust.
This may look cute and cuddly, but I can’t help but imagine the fear going through Chastain’s mind
The use of animals really contributes to the empathy and character depth, as the connection between the family and the animals is so well developed. For example, the audience absolutely falls in love with Jessica Chastain’s character as she saves a baby elephant toward the beginning of the film. This not only shows the love and care in Chastain’s heart, but also forms a connection with the animals who are later killed by the german soldiers. This connection leads to heartbreak for the audience when the animals are killed and adds hatred to the unsympathetic German soldiers. Although the loving aspect with the animals is appreciated, I would’ve expected at least an equivalent depth of connection among the characters. For instance, the first woman that is agreed upon to be housed with the family is supposedly their best friend, one of the most important people in their lives, but she comes out of nowhere and her character is never developed in any capacity.
Despite the lack of character development in the supporting characters, there is success to be found in the amount of pain and sympathy the audience feels when they die or get hurt. The Nazis are repeatedly shown throughout the film as absolutely evil as they should be, as they shoot people with no reason or remorse, but especially as they rape a young Jewish girl. Some critics disapprove of rape as a plot device; I do think there is a right and wrong way to incorporate it, and this film does it well. The rape itself is not shown, but the aftermath and its effects on the young girl are, consequently bringing up a point that many Holocaust films fail to call attention to. It also forms a connection between her and Johan Heldenbergh’s character. He witnesses the young girl being pulled into an alley and takes a risk to rescue her when he sees what has happened. I find this to be the most brutally honest, touching, and ghastly moment in the film. The true compassion in Chastain and Heldenbergh’s characters is tear-jerking and their performances, especially Chastain’s, only increase as such.
The aesthetics of the zoo are stylistic and portray a happy, beautiful place with the purity of many loving, innocent animals. There is a brilliant use of pastels and bright natural greens that turn dewy and sad as the bombs destroy the walls, the animals die, and the zoo is essentially abandoned. This dreary feel makes the color, life, and symbolism of the paintings that the Jews in hiding put on the wall stand out, giving the campers a deeper identity. Judging from the historic photos of the Warsaw Zoo during the holocaust, the filmmakers stay fairly true to the original look, while adding color and personality that’s much appreciated to the authenticity of a time period piece.
Being chased by a camel on your bike in your beautiful pastel life, every zookeepers wife’s dream
Every film has issues; luckily, this one’s issues don’t overpower its worth. Unfortunately, the dialogue of the film is a letdown. Not that the dialogue is bad, but more that it is bland in times where it could’ve been so powerful. It is also worth recognizing the decision to use American actors speaking English with an accent, rather than Polish actors speaking Polish and/or German. It is a choice that appeals to more of the American audience, but takes away from the authenticity of the film. Chastain and Heldenbergh deliver very believable accents though, as part of their great performances. The timeline of the film is slightly hard to follow; despite this, the speed keeps the viewer engaged. The power of the film vastly overpowers its slight flaws, but unfortunately, there are aspects that could’ve been better.
Jessica Chastain delivers a moving performance. Her feminine manner allows for a graceful portrayal of a strong female protagonist and a new perspective on the war film genre. Serving as a great addition to the large collection of Holocaust films, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE stands out thanks to its female perspective and aspect of family affection. Despite its minor flaws, Caro’s film holds up thanks to its truth of desperation and helplessness. Horrific faithfulness to the inhuman savagery of war with a theme of hope in humanity in those who share benevolence and empathy, this 2017 war drama is not only unique, but also heart-wrenching and significant.