The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) and Dunkirk (2017)

I watched two movies about World War II last week, and both did an excellent job of bringing horrific experiences to life. I loved The Zookeeper’s Wife and appreciated but did not love Dunkirk. Some spoilers follow, although with both these movies being based on actual events, they are not really surprises. (Photos from IMDb.)

The Zookeeper’s Wife:

The Zookeeper's Wife imdbThis movie, available on video-on-demand, is wonderfully acted and brings to life a story that is well worth watching. It is based on the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who ran the Warsaw Zoo. Over the course of the war, they courageously hid and helped an estimated 300 people to escape from Nazi-occupied Warsaw, with only two of that number being killed. The movie takes its story from the non-fiction book, The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, which in turn was based on Antonina Zabinska’s own diaries.

The film’s opening scenes are of the Zabinskis’ idyllic life together with their son and their animals, making the subsequent footage of the zoo being bombed so much more shocking. As the Nazi occupiers round up the people Jan grew up with and imprison them in the Warsaw Ghetto, he is at a loss to understand. As quoted on, the real-life Jan said, “Many times I wished to analyze the causes for dislike for Jews and I could not find any, besides artificially formed ones.” With the zoo being shut down and turned into a pig farm, Jan is permitted to regularly go to the Ghetto to pick up food scraps to feed the pigs … while secretly smuggling Jewish people out beneath the scraps and smuggling pork back in to stave off the starvation of the inhabitants.

Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh gives a wonderfully understated performance as Jan Zabinski, conveying quiet courage in the face of the horrors he sees. We are there with him as he feels such helplessness in not being able to save everyone who is suffering. Jessica Chastain is excellent, playing Antonina Zabinska with such intensity of emotion that, again, we experience her desperation and her need to do whatever must be done to protect not only her family, but also the people that are hidden within both their zoo and their home. As a couple, their steady support for each other is clearly evident. Daniel Brühl is also very good as the Nazi zoologist, who has plans for experimental breeding of animals and who is smitten by Antonina.

I loved The Zookeeper’s Wife for the emotional realism and for its ability to show the horror of the persecution and killing of people, who after all are just people like their neighbours. I think that it is important to keep telling these stories, along with the stories of those who put themselves and their loved ones at grave risk to help others.


Dunkirk poster imdbThe best thing about this film is the cinematography, which is quite impressive on the big screen. It is more about the spectacle than about the few stories that are told or the characters. Writer/director Christopher Nolan focuses the movie on the evacuation of the soldiers trapped on the beach at Dunkirk early in World War II, surrounded by the enemy and without adequate resources to fight or flee. While the true events also had the French and other troops holding off the Nazi’s on the ground, the film is more focused on the efforts of the British in rescuing their soldiers.

In terms of the excellent camera work, some of it is almost like found footage, where we are jostled as if from the viewpoint of a soldier running with a stretcher carrying a wounded soldier. The filming from inside the fighter planes has us almost losing our bearings, not knowing which way is up or down as we feel in pursuit of the enemy planes. We sense the desperation of the soldiers, trapped down below as water rushes into their torpedoed ship or standing exposed on the narrow seawall with nowhere to hide as the bombs rain down upon them. Bringing the audience these experiences by sharing the viewpoint of the soldiers works really well.

What for me doesn’t work so well is the merging of three disparate timelines as if they were one. The group of young soldiers desperately trying to get off the beach takes place over one week. The small-boat owner and his companions travelling to aid in the rescue is of one day’s duration. Finally, the two or three fighter pilots doing all they can to shoot down the enemy planes bombing the beach is a story that lasts only an hour. And yet all three timelines are shown essentially simultaneously, with the focus cycling from one to the next as they all head towards the ultimate evacuation. This is just confusing, and I found myself trying to figure out why it was light one minute and dark the next or why the number of soldiers on the beach would shrink and then grow again.

Somehow also the focus in on these smaller stories serves to reduce the impact of the big story. It seems to show that only a few are rescued (when in fact it was more than 330,000) and that there are only two or three fighter pilots (when in fact there were many more). Speaking of the fighter pilots, their story trajectory is the most gripping of the three, with the heroic and somewhat clichéd derring-do that we are used to in a war movie. Tom Hardy is quite perfect in this role, although his dialogue is almost impossible to understand through his mask and goggles. Mark Rylance’s performance as the small-boat captain is fine, although there is not much there for him to sink his teeth into. Harry Styles of One Direction fame has cut off his trademark long hair to play one of the young soliers and does a very good job.

I suppose that Dunkirk will win awards and I certainly can appreciate the unique approach to a war movie, but it will not be my favourite movie of the year.

As an aside, while we were at the cinema watching Dunkirk, a loud argument broke out in the audience, apparently caused by seat-kicking! It got louder and louder with profanity and racial slurs thrown in (the participants were an Asian couple and an Indigenous couple). Soon, the film was paused, the lights went on, and the Cineplex folks came in to separate them. In the meantime, many in the audience steadily backed away and quickly left the cinema, apparently afraid of what might happen. The battle of words was soon under control, however, and the film was restarted several minutes back. The remaining audience was able to watch the last bit of the movie in peace.

22 thoughts on “The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) and Dunkirk (2017)

  1. I just watched The Zookeeper’s Wife last night (on demand) Sue, as I’d had lunch earlier in the day with a couple of friends and one of them recommended it. I was very moved by the whole thing and have to admit to actually weeping during the scene at the railway station when the people from the Warsaw ghetto (in this scene mostly children) were being put into the cattle trucks. When those little ones held up their arms to Jan to be picked up I just lost it, knowing what in real life their fate was to be.

    I’d like to see Dunkirk but will have to wait until it is released on DVD. My problem is getting people to go with me to see movies that *I* want to see! 😦 I was born the year before the II World War broke out (Yes! I AM that old! 😦 ) so having lived through the bombing of my home city I usually enjoy (maybe that isn’t the right word) watching movies or TV shows about that time in history.


    • It’s funny… the reviews for The Zookeeper’s Wife weren’t very good, but I thought it was great. Yes, I agree about that scene at the railway station… very poignant.
      I’m interested in the WWII movies too. My mum was a telephone operator in England during the war and my dad was a Canadian soldier. My mum gave birth all alone in a wartime hospital. My mother-in-law was one of the children evacuated from England to Scotland during the war. I really can’t imagine living in a war zone like that. We are very lucky today where we live.


  2. The reviewers I trust did not like Zookeeper’s Wife, so I didn’t go to see it. Dunkirk is apparently whitewashed (surprise, surprise), but I didn’t have it on my list anyway.

    So when you’re in the theater in Canada and something like this happens, are you at all worried that the combatants might have guns?


  3. The Zookeeper’s WIfe is definitely one I want to see! I couldn’t get around to the cinema when it played here and missed it but will definitely catch up on it.

    Dunkirk is playing here now but I’m not too curious about that one, sounds like it isn’t a must-see anyhow.

    Pity about the skirmish but glad it was solved soon.


    • I thought Jessica Chastain was really amazing in the role. I’m interested now to read the book of ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ too.
      My husband and younger son thought ‘Dunkirk’ was great. My older son, who’s a bit of a war history buff, thought it was okay. I liked it the least of the four of us.
      A few years ago at the same multi-plex, there was an altercation in the adjacent cinema to mine where someone pulled a knife and stabbed the other person. They actually evacuated all of the cinemas and we had to exit out over the roof… never did get to see the end of the movie! That was weird. So, at least this one was resolved without violence.


  4. Well, I went and saw Dunkirk today anyway (needed to keep dad away from the brandy on the anniversary of mom’s death, so we saw a triple feature and this was the second one). You and I had the opposite impression. I thought the cinematography was ordinary, but (apart from the very end) I thought this was a really, really smart script. One of the better war movie scripts I’ve seen.


    • I hope you and your dad are doing ok. The anniversaries are tough.
      Isn’t that interesting that we had such opposite impressions. The cinematography really made me feel like I might have been there. The script just didn’t do it for me. Did you like the three timelines being shown as if simultaneous? What did you like about the script?
      (I saw that RA really liked the sound and said it was one of his best of the decade films.)


      • I wish we could have a conversation. However, that is not possible at present, so … maybe in a few more years.

        I thought it was really a fantastic move to make the three separate plot strands converge on the same event. That is not the easiest thing to do as a writer and it was masterful. Really increased the tension of the whole thing bit by bit, almost unnoticeably. I was frankly bored by the dogfights, all the stuff that had to do with the planes (you couldn’t see their faces very well and their dialogue was hard to understand) and a lot of the ocean panorama shots. I thought the water shots were good, but Armitage couldn’t have been in that timeline without a lot of personal suffering 🙂 To me the best scene was in the trawler, where they were arguing about whether the one soldier was English. I could have lived without Kenneth Branagh strutting along the mole and basically everything after the soldiers disembarked in England, and I felt emotionally exploited by and thus resentful about the plotline about the young man who died aboard the yacht after being assaulted by the pilot. They could have just stopped when the old man said it was enough that they had survived — that would have been a good ending for me. I think it’s very hard to make a WWII movie about any Allied force that isn’t patriotic and I have less and less patience for that as I get older.

        I agree with what Armitage said about the sound design although I didn’t like the use of electronic instruments. It’s definitely not on my film of the decade list.


        • Nolan definitely does some interesting writing. I really like Inception, where he played with what was real and dreams. But, for me, I found it confusing with the three timelines in Dunkirk. And I found the planes the most exciting! (Even if I couldn’t understand the dialogue.) You’re right that Armitage wouldn’t have enjoyed being in those water scenes…. I found them realistic even from the audience! I thought the scene in the trawler was good too… we got to see that Harry Styles could act. I agree about Kenneth Branagh’s role too and some of the ending felt pretty cliched. All that being said, though, there were definitely good things about the movie and I’m sure it will win awards.


          • I’m sure it will win awards; I’m not sure it will be on the all time list of best WWII movies, though. Or movies in general. I think the only other film of Nolan’s I’ve seen is Interstellar, which was okay but not memorable for me.

            I read an interesting essay recently about indifference toward films as a result of criticisms one has. The point of the essay was essentially that certain things become boring over time, particularly if one has inherent political criticisms of what’s being portrayed. It doesn’t make the films bad, necessarily; they just fail to interest one or be worthy of one’s attention because one has just seen them, and had that reaction, so many times already. And so, with apologies with what is sure to come across as impiety: WWII films fall into this category for me on a number of grounds: their whiteness (this film was whitewashed); their maleness (I think we saw two women all the way through this film); their fascination with effects and destruction (after watching things blow up for most of my life I am not interested anymore); their patriotism (I don’t know how a British filmmaker can make a film about this subject that’s not patriotic, but I increasingly cannot handle “triumph of the human spirit in war” films). The list of things that I already finding tiring about films like this before I’ve even seen them is so long that in general I would prefer not to waste my money unless the film is something really special.

            I have two male relatives (great uncles, whom I knew as a child, now both deceased) who participated in the Normandy invasion and it’s not an exaggeration to say that experience destroyed the subsequent life of one of them and had significant negative and crushing effects on the life of the other. So I just can’t with “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Longest Day” and so on. I recognize the significance of their sacrifices and those of so many others, I just can’t incorporate them into certain kinds of narratives any more. Can’t in the sense that the mere request to do so by a film raises my blood pressure. I feel like WWII films are very much trapped in an inescapable narrative that I find largely repellent.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, that makes sense. Particularly I find often that over-the-top patriotism is hard to watch, especially when there are usually more countries that were equally heroic. For some reason I wanted to go see this film, in part because the reviews were so good.

              My dad and my uncles never really talked about what they must have experienced in terms of the fighting itself. They tended to stick to what was probably easier to talk about … stories of getting eggs at a French farm and taking cutlery from a deserted Nazi officers’ mess.


              • I think my perspective on these movies changed decisively albeit gradually after living in Germany — where it’s sort of accepted that you can’t celebrate the war in any way, although of course all of those fallen soldiers had relatives who made (sometimes heroic) sacrifices. It definitely changed how I saw the war movies from the Allied perspective (although not so much how I saw the war itself). My “favorite” German WWII movie is probably “Stalingrad” (1993, dir. Josef Vilsmaier) which has its series of stereotypes — and which admittedly hides the decisive facts about what the German 6th Army had been doing in the months before its offensive against the Russians. A lot of German critics felt that it created too much sympathy for the Germans, and I can see that, but in general it conveys my idea of what war movies should do much more effectively than most of the American or English films I see.

                Liked by 1 person

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