An affecting true-life drama about a woman and her husband, who ran the Warsaw Zoo, helped to hide Jews from the Nazis during the occupation of Poland.
The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of a married couple in Warsaw, the owners and operators of a zoo, who rescued hundreds of Jews from the ghetto under the noses of the German occupation during World War II. Now, at the risk of seeming irreverent, this seems like a formula that we’ve come across before; the worst possible thing, the Holocaust, as the background to a story of uplift, of the triumph of good over evil. And you may ask, do we really need another movie on this theme? The previews seemed to confirm my expectations, which is why it took me this long to get around to seeing the movie.
But there is one thing I didn’t realize. The director is Niki Caro, a filmmaker from New Zealand who made a film way back in ’02 that you may recall, entitled Whale Rider. That movie was about a young girl who feels called to be the chieftain of her Maori tribe, but the elders say the chieftain has to be male, and this premise of triumph over adversity seemed almost Disney-like until you actually saw the movie and it was much more profound and well-acted and many layered than the trailer gave you reason to expect. And it turns out in her later career that this is kind of what Niki Caro does. She takes what seems like simple genre pictures and makes them shine.
Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, who helps run the Warsaw Zoo with her husband Jan, played by Johan Heldenburgh. The prelude allows us to witness the joy Antonina has in all the animals under her care—in the film we see Chastain handling lion cubs, elephants, and a host of other creatures with seeming aplomb—only to eventually see her world crashing down with the German bombardment in September of ’39. The terror of the animals, and the destruction of many of them, is done realistically and needless to say, is very affecting. Caro uses the mute suffering and confusion of the animals as a foreshadowing of the immensity of the human anguish we eventually see.
Based on a book by Diane Ackerman, and written for the screen by Angela Workman, The Zookeeper’s Wife does not soften the reality of what happened in Warsaw. It evokes the terror of that period quite well, and when the Zabinskis start secretly trafficking Jews out of the ghetto, a decision they don’t make out of conventional heroism, but because they can’t imagine living with themselves if they look the other way, the picture becomes a real nail-biter, very scary and intense. That said, Caro does more with suggestion and poetic imagery than with explicit violence, while somehow retaining the powerful mood. Chastain is excellent, and there is a particularly gripping turn by Daniel Brȕhl as a German zoologist who acts like he’s there to help the zoo, but is really a devout Nazi who happens to be smitten with Antonina. He seems like a real person, not a cartoon villain, and that means he’s more disturbing.
When depicting the horrifying events of World War II and the Holocaust, honesty and respect for the victims makes the difference between a meaningful film and exploitation. The Zookeeper’s Wife is an example of how to give voice to the most dreadful tragedy, with dignity and authentic feeling.