World War 2 movies are tough to make for a lot of reasons, chief among them is that it’s a real challenge to do justice to the story and victims of genocide in two hours. The only way to make it even harder to tell such an enormous story within the confines of film would be to do something really unusual, like adding elephants and bunnies to the equation.
And yet, opening in theaters this weekend is The Zookeeper’s Wife, a new film that attempts to tell an affecting story about heroism, tragedy, and zoo animals. It’s not perfectly done, but given the undertaking, director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) succeeds on more levels that one might expect.
Based on the book “The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story” by Diane Ackerman, the movie is based on the true story of Antonia and Jan Zabinski, who as keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, sheltered more than 300 people during the 1940s German occupation of Poland. Following the destruction the zoo by bombing raids and the removal of most of the surviving animals by a German zoologist acquaintance, the Zabinskis (Jessica Chastian and Johan Heldenbergh) create a plan to keep the zoo functioning so that they can also transport and hide refugees from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Scale is the most important element in stories like this one: the movie has to be large enough that audiences don’t forget the broader stakes and context, but small enough to allow viewers to connect with it more intimately than just knowing the statistics and history. Caro’s success in scaling and balancing The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of the films greatest strengths. She even finds ways to use the animals to anchor the story at times. Seeing tigers and camels wandering the streets of Warsaw after the bombing is bizarre, but it’s also realistic: their cages are destroyed, so where else would they go? Eventually you start to realize that the realities of the zoo make more sense than the other elements of the film, since so much about this whole atrocity is unfathomable to many of us. But the film tells the story of the violence committed against this community of people in a human and empathetic way that draws audiences into the story.
Speaking of that violence, a note of caution, particularly to parents or viewers who are sensitive to depictions of violence: the PG-13 rating of this movie misrepresents the graphic and difficult nature of the content. There are a few spoilers in the rest of this paragraph, I guess, but I don’t think it should go unmentioned that, in the case of The Zookeeper’s Wife, scenes that include people being shot and killed at close range, sexual assault, and the brutal aftermath of the rape of a child only merit a PG-13 rating. All of that violence, by the way, is perpetrated against women and girls. Incidentally, if the final cut had included no violence but two uses of the word “fuck,” it would have almost definitely been rated “R.”
Irresponsible though that rating is, it’s a failing of the MPAA, not the film. Indeed, the violence in The Zookeeper’s Wife is important to the film, and Caro and the cast handle it responsibly. Shira Haas in particular does haunting, standout work as Urszula, the girl traumatized in the aftermath of sexual assault. Chastain does nimble work too, since Antonina navigates a power dynamic with the German zooligist that pits her safety against her autonomy. Relative unknown Heldenbergh is also doing great work in the role of Jan, maintaining the humanity and flaws in a character who is unquestionably heroic.
Despite the presence of the menagerie, it’s the relationships and sometimes mundane moments that make the film work: the burying of animals killed in the bombing, the strain on Jan and Antonina’s relationship as they do their separate parts in the rescue effort, moments of doubt and tragic acceptance of a new reality. These pieces all serve to anchor a film that could easily have gotten unwieldy – even if it hadn’t had elephants.