Using the zoo's underground tunnels and animal pens, they hide their guests during the day and invite them to socialise in the house at night. The rescued guests are eventually disguised as Germans and assimilated back into society, unbeknownst to the NAZI officers who oversee the zoo's function.
Comparisons are inevitable and I am going to proclaim THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE as SCHINDLER'S LIST LITE. It is a fanciful film set against a horrific backdrop, and while it strives to tell a harrowing tale it fails to capture the true horror of the Holocaust. The bombing of Warsaw is depicted fleetingly with a few explosions, some flying debris, and the sound of air-raid sirens. And what should be a harrowing moment of subtext ends up being a lazy plot device that lacks intensity and emotion. The ghetto itself, as depicted, is little more than a fenced-off street lined with houses, and the overall persecution of the Jewish people is glazed over as though too distressful for audiences to bare. What an insult. When those inevitable war crimes are actually depicted the camera flinches and looks away, with the result being a sterilised and cowardly depiction of an important historical story.
The title of the film is unfortunate, and it overlooks the bravery the real key player. For a story titled THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE it was disappointing to learn that the character who put their life on the line most was the Zookeeper himself. While his wife was at home tending to the zoo and keeping their 'guests' quiet, it was her husband who travelled into the ghetto under the NAZI's noses and saved hundreds of lives. Nevertheless the cast is adequate with Jessica Chastain in the title role. Her performance is well measured and reaches for emotional highs, and her ability to transition from distress to composure is impressive. It is a shame, however, that she carries such a caricatured Polish accent throughout the film that I spent the entire time wishing it had been made in German with subtitles. Her husband is played by John Heldenbergh who delivers a well-measured and understated performance. His presence on the screen is certainly the film's biggest strength and he affords it a creditability where an American actor would have failed. And of course the third player is Daniel Bruhl (I know, right?)... ie that “go-to” German guy who plays a NAZI well (CAPTAIN AMERICA, IN TRANSIT, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS etc). It's fortunate that Bruhl is a great actor and serves up a consummate turn as Hitler's head zoologist, who has a crush on the Zookeeper's wife.
The film was directed by New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro, whose previous films include the exceptional WHALE RIDER, NORTH COUNTRY and MCFARLAND USA. She has a great talent for storytelling and has proven herself to be reliable with heavy material. Unfortunately her attempt to tell this true forgotten story from the Holocaust has been marred by a glossy production design, heavy restraint and a blind eye. The colours are also too vibrant and her screen would have benefited from a more washed out colour palate, and a greater emphasis on the shadows.
As an entire package, the film presents a misleading cutesy title, a refusal to depict the holocaust honestly and it casts far too much light on one of history's most unfathomable moments. A massive misstep and a lacklustre film at best.