The facts-based story of Antonia Żabińska (great Jessica Chastain) – the titled wife the zookeeper (very good Johan Heldenbergh), who in the times of the World War II was managing Warsaw ZOO, is a great material for cinema, but at the same time a trap for moviemakers, because it can be easily turned into a sentimental, melodramatic tale composed of clichés. Unfortunately, Niki Caro, the director of this movie, does not manage to stay on the bright side and copies all possible, obvious solutions than can be used (and were used million times) in a narrations about good ordinary people who risk their lives by cooperating with the resistance movement and try to save innocent human being from the cruelty of the Nazis. The director turns a real story in to a banal and it’s unforgivable. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” would have been a total catastrophe if it weren’t for great, brilliant actors (on both – first and secondary plans).
Jan and Antonina create a beautiful couple that spreads love and care around them. The opening scene of the movie, in which the women drives her bike through the zoo’s streets and a happy camel follows here seems and few hours later saves life of one little elephant seems to be a symbolic farewell with old world and other. Soon – when the German bombs will brutally change forever Warsaw, Poland and the entire Earth, the protagonists will have to accept the fact that some of their creatures cannot be saved and look for a way of turning empty zoo cages into something more than a graveyard and reminder of idyllic past that will never come back. Jan and Antonina will turn their beloved zoo into a place in which Jews will hide and quietly fight for not giving their lives away.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is one of those movies in which the creators make a very clear, black & white division into good and bad side. The protagonists do not experience moral dilemmas – we know very well that there is nothing that could stop them from sharing goodness and risking their safety (and sometimes dignity) so the others can live. On the other side of the barricade we have a German officer who is in love with Antonina (Daniel Brühl), and who seems to be a perfect, disgusting embodiment of Nazism – its people and ideology.
The audience has no problems with choosing the sides, because the movie is composed as a tale, in which evil is strong, but good is even more powerful. There is nothing world in creating movies that make the audience believe in a possible triumph of light, but the director of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” not only turns a real story into an obvious parable, but also deprives her characters worlds of humanity – Antonina and Jan are unimpeachable, morally perfect and similar rather to figures of secular saints than real people with not only huge hearts, but also with huge fears. One of rare authentic moments in the entire production is a scene in which Jan gets jealous when seeing his wife flirting with a German. He probably knows that Antonina does desperate things to protect the zoo’s guests, but he cannot hide his resentment. He reminds us that it’s a story of real people – not puppets, machines, or fictional allegories.
In this movie almost all Polish people are like the zookeepers. The underground movement works efficiently and without hesitation saves Jews. Antonia and Jan together create a wonderful marriage – they both well-educated, open, progressive, and the woman does not remains in her man’s shadow. The creators of the movie neither talk about polish anti-Semitism, nor show the drama of people who were creating the Warsaw ghetto. Their movie presents an idealized version of the history that is easy to accept by massive audience and that sells a beautiful, dramatic story without asking difficult and uncomfortable questions. What’s important, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is also a universal tale about immortal values and as such shouldn’t be criticized. The broken world will always need beautiful tales to remind itself that not everything is lost.