The true story behind The Zookeeper’s Wife should be told: During Germany’s occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1945, the husband and wife who owned the Warsaw Zoo used their caged basement to shelter over 300 fleeing Jews. It’s a remarkable piece of history, which is what makes Niki Caro’s clumsy adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book so disappointing.
First, there’s Jessica Chastain’s role as Antonina Żabiński, the titular zookeeper’s wife. Antonina’s incandescent purity manifests in her love of animals, which is pretty much her only defining characteristic. Also, Chastain’s Polish accent is bad. It makes her sound like a sexy baby which, coupled with Antonina’s unwavering kindness, reduces the smart, courageous, and complicated woman.
Then there’s the film’s fixation on zoo animals’ suffering under German occupation. You will cry at least seven times, because it will hurt your heart to see Nazis shoot an elephant. But killing animals is this film’s primary method of illustrating Nazi cruelty, which feels strange for a work about the Holocaust. That said, I did cry seven times—my dislike for The Zookeeper’s Wife happened afterwards, as I retroactively tried to map my mixed feelings.
What haunted me most is the film’s happy ending: The Nazis scamper off into the shadows, and the war’s survivors resume their old lives. This testament to the power of love comes off as bullshit, because millions of people didn’t get to rebuild their lives—and in 2017, Nazis are creeping back into the light.
It’s rough to watch The Zookeeper’s Wife today, as we see white supremacists in our own country emboldened by a bigoted president. But even though it’s not well-executed, the film’s core message—to resist rather than sink into complacency—is important to hear repeatedly, until it rings in our ears.