Focus Features 2hours 4 minutes PG-13
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a powerful morality play full of suspense and tension based on a true story. Jan and Antonina Zabinski ran the renown Warsaw Zoo on the eve of the 1939 invasion of the Nazi Occupation of Poland. Belgian film star Johan Heldenbergh plays Jan with grace and determination while Jessica Chastain, as Antonina, adds another powerful, resourceful, passionate woman to her list of great roles.
The movie is based on the 2007 book by Diane Ackerman. Ackerman was given access to Antonina’s diary and much of the movie stays true to the events as depicted in the source material. Antonina had a very special relationship with her zoo animals and Jessica Chastain was able to bring that out through her own interaction with so many shown in the film. Daniel Brühl, who plays Lutz Heck, the zoologist and director of the Berlin Zoo, says Chastain had an amazing way with the animals and was much braver with them than he was. She had no fear and it shows. Brühl’s character becomes the Nazi-in-charge and the exact opposite of the Zabinski’s. He exports the finest of the zoo’s animals to Berlin and kills the rest. He expands the definition of holocaust.
The film opens in an almost idyllic setting. Antonina bicycling through the zoo on her morning round followed by a jogging camel calf. There are morning greetings to incredibly cute lion cubs, elephants and monkeys, all followed up with a kiss for her loving husband. No doubt, director Niki Caro (The Whale Rider) and writer Angela Workman wanted to make sure we get the message how good life can be before we are thrown into the Hell that was the Warsaw Ghetto. The detail in the sets of the zoo and of Warsaw are extremely detailed and shot as though you are walking in them yourself.
The major plot line revolves around the Zabinski’s response, which was to find a way to smuggle Jews out of the Ghetto right under the Nazis’ noses. Jan drove a garbage truck in, snuck in the Jews and covered them with garbage to drive them out unnoticed. It’s frightening.
If there’s a weakness in the portrayal of this story it comes through the depictions of terror and suffering of the animals versus the humans. Director Caro and cinematographer Andrij Parekh do a better job conveying the horror of the animals as the bombs fall around them than they do when the Jews are being rounded up, murdered and packed into cattle cars. It all looked too antiseptic. The only thread that adequately conveys the panic of the Jews’ plight was when we follow the story of Urzula (Shira Haas), a young girl brutally raped and rescued by Jan.
There is also a tendency to reduce the characters to caricatures. It’s all too easy to put tags on heroes and villains as the movie progresses. At least, Daniel Brühl is given the opportunity to bring some shading to his character. He never questions his decisions concerning killing animals or Jews, but he’s given a sub-text of lust for Antonina which makes his journey a bit more interesting. Watching Antonina react to his advances, hiding her revulsion so she can continue saving lives, is the definition of a heroine.
Jessica Chastain delivers a moving performance. At first we wondered about the Russian accent she used, (Antonina was born on the Russian-Polish border and her parents were murdered in the Bolshevik Revolution) but she grew into it and it became less noticeable. John Heldenbergh is also a surprise as Jan. He portrays emotional control and suppressed rage very effectively. He’s mostly absent for the last third of the film and his story gets lost in the interim. He is the strong, silent type, except when it matters.
There have been many of these uncovered WWII true stories put up on the big screen over the years, but this one needs to be told now. In 1968 the Zabinskis were honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, as Righteous Among the Nations honorees. They had the courage to stand up to evil and protect the weak and powerless, whether human or animal. This movie projects a lesson in humanity toward all living beings that should be remembered today.