Film Review: ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

Jessica Chastain is gentle yet determined in ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife,’ a story based on the reality that Polish zookeeper Antonina Żabińska lived as she fought fear and oppression to do what only made sense: save as many people as she could from the horrors of Nazi occupation.

Based on author Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book The Zookeeper’s Wife, here is a film written and directed by women, staring a two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain as real life heroine Antonina Żabińska. While this may seem an arbitrary observation (or, perhaps, not so arbitrary considering the resurgence of feminism in conversation), it is actually a testament to the power of work created by women. How important the fact that women were at the center of this film is up, ultimately, to you, yet it’s undeniable the force of their influence in creating a film that heralds humanity in inhuman times.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland, zookeepers Antonina and her husband Jan risk their livelihoods, their safety, their children so that they can help the persecuted Jews of Warsaw. Some were their friends, others were strangers, but over 300 people lived, whether they were passing through or needed shelter, in Antonina’s house on the grounds of their zoo.

It’s understandable why this story became a film; it harbors a truth about courage that feels nothing like courage at all; it is a moment in a dark period of history that exhales compassion and humanity; it is a story about a family, oppressed but hopelessly aware that they are luxuriating in their limited freedom compared to the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto. Multifaceted, emotionally conflicted and dispiritingly human, it’s unfortunate result is that it sanitizes the true cost of the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto as it emphasizes the heroism, bravery and residence of the sheltered Jews and the Żabiński family.

While there is nothing sanitary or remotely unfelt about the scene in which Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh), helpless and numbly horrified, lifts children onto the train that, the audience knows, is headed towards a concentration camp, director Niki Caro methodically curates moments of truth. These are quiet, introspective realities that flash and create an impression: Nazi soldiers grabbing suitcases out of hands, throwing them unceremoniously onto a pile of others, lumps of suitcases burning as trains leave the station, Urszula (Shira Haas) aimlessly walking through the Warsaw Ghetto, blood running down her thighs as two Nazi soldiers emerge from behind. These are painful to watch but in film about the pain and suffering of millions, it’s unavoidable.

Chastain’s performance as Antonina is subdued and yet grounds the arc of story. Her fears, her soft-spoken nature, her weariness around humans but her wholeheartedness towards animals, her emotions playing out so vulnerably on her features: she is the mother of these lives. However, her choice to attempt the Polish accent wavers and leaves the register of her voice irritatingly saccharine. Meanwhile Daniel Brühl as Lutz Heck, a zoologist from Berlin who acts as the film’s main antagonist, opts for a British accent despite playing a German. This is a minor issue but enough to take you out of the film.

Well paced, well written and shot in such a way that depicts both the beauty of Warsaw and it’s haunted, skeletal, starved aftermath post-Nazi invasion, The Zookeeper’s Wife is heartbreaking and resilient. It is a sobered reality of a war that had no sober moments. It finds good in nothing good. It’s a safe way to show the trauma of the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto, of fleeing persecution and war, but that does not mean it’s not an important and powerful story about how humanity survives on an almost instinctual morality and compassion. 

The Zookeeper’s Wife is in theaters today.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Val Maloku, Efrat Dor, Shira Haas, Michael McElhatton
Director: Niki Caro
Writer: Angela Workman 
based on the nonfiction book The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman   
Genre: Drama, History
Running time: 126 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 

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