Niki Caro (Whale Rider) directs “The Zookeeper’s Wife” a predictable but well intentioned historical drama about the effect of the Nazi regime on the Warsaw Zoo. In 1939, the famous zoo was bombed by the Third Reich. Many exotic animals perished. But despite this disgusting offense, the Zabinski family slowly rebuilt the zoo, joined the Resistance and saved over 300 people. Though the film has its handwringing, chiefly in its opening moments by showing Antonia Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) as a Doctor Dolittle, the performances are in earnest, despite some touches of drawing room villiany.
Antonia is clumsy although around animals she is a wizard saving a baby elephant from death. She catches the eye of Dr. Heck (Daniel Brühl) head of the Berlin Zoo, who only has one expression, a tense and wincing impassivity as if he has just swallowed a lemon. One look at Heck and we know he is Public Nazi Nummer Eins.
Heck lusts after Antonia and promises to protect the prized animals after the bombing raid. He also wants to try his hand at recreating a super-race of bison. Antonia humors Heck’s lusty gestures in order to protect the majestic creatures.
Suffice to say, Heck moves in on the zoo like Major Arnold Ernst Toht in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” no forbidding music necessary.
When Heck and Antonia assist a bison birth, husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) fears infidelity, but Antonia takes in a child rape victim (Shira Haas) and reassures Jan of the danger at hand.
Jan joins the Resistance.
The film has some solid acting by Chastain and highlights more unconscionable and pathetic actions by the Reich as if we needed more.
The cinematography by Andrij Parekh is marvelling showing the animals as wonderland walkers of beauty and magic. This makes their murders all the more execrable.
Young Ryszard (Tim Radford) saves the day by duping the nefarious Heck only to have the last anti-fascist word.
Those of us who know our history can guess what comes: enter the Russian army.
Despite its convention, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” does shed light on the Warsaw Zoo (which still remains today) as it was in its time of darkness. Let us hope we never see the horrid likes of Dr. Lutz Heck and his constipated face ever again.
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