Synopsis – The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the account of keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who helped save hundreds of people and animals during the German invasion.
My Take – Film makers will always find a unique way to make a film around WWII, a trend that can be witnessed with the continuing diversity of storytelling approaches been taken in order to keep the memories of the lost alive. The war demonstrated and exemplified in these films show humanity at their best in the form of optimism, heroism, kindness, and bravery along with their worst in the form of horror, despair and death. Yet there’s only one acceptable way of making films about the Holocaust, at least the makers of this film seem to think so, hence the severe divide among critics. Sure, in comparison to recent films like Son of Saul, this one would seem quite weak, mainly as director Niki Carro (McFarland, USA and the upcoming Disney‘s Mulan) has decided to skip the graphic realism, large-scale human carnage and moral dystopia to instead focus on the true story of how Antonina Żabiński and her husband Jan used their Zoo to save around 300 Jewish lives. Yes, the title of the film is quite misleading, like don’t expect a lovely romantic film and don’t expect the animals of the zoo to take part in something, as they are merely a key element of the film. Yet, despite slightly lacking the emotional impact the subject matter demands, director Caro is able to reflect humanity, sincerity and earnestness of the lead characters here, which results in a quite engaging and captivating film despite its apparent flaws. Based on Diane Ackerman‘s bestseller, the story follows Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain), who along with her husband Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and young son run the Warsaw Zoo of Poland, 1939. While they spend most of their time tending to their animals and holding dinner parties for their intellectual friends, the sudden (although not entirely unexpected) German invasion of Poland heavily damages the zoo’s structures and kills many of its animals.
With winter approaching, Poland’s new Nazi overlords decide to close the zoo and exterminate the remaining animals. However, when Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the director of the Berlin Zoo and the Third Reich’s preeminent zoologist, offers to save some of the Warsaw Zoo’s most prized species by transferring them to Berlin, Jan and Antonina agree with mixed emotions. Tired of losing their Jewish friends to this ongoing slaughter, the two come up with an idea to use Heck and his position to keep their Zoo open in the form of a pig farm. Seeing this move as a new food source for German soldiers and as an opportunity to conduct animal breeding experiments in an attempt to bring back extinct animal species, Heck agrees, not knowing that Jan has been using the garbage truck meant to feed the pigs as a means to smuggle Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, a barred location where the Nazis have consolidated the city’s remaining Jewish population. When additional methods are employed (and with a little additional help from like-minded locals), adults and even entire families are in, although some of the Jews quickly pass through, others stay for long periods of time, requiring an elaborate system of measures designed to keep everyone safe. It’s a system that becomes increasingly dangerous as time wears on, the number of Jews in hiding increases – and Heck comes around more and more, ostensibly for his breeding experiments, but also to flirt with Antonina. Here is a film depicting real-life story, where war is just the backdrop, & not the main focus. The film focuses on the aftermath of the violence, and how the protagonists risk their own lives to help the people who are suffering. This film is not about the war crisis, but more about how good elements of the society have chosen to give hope, share love and compassion with the victims. It is about how a few people grew beyond their self-interest to help the needy. The film does make one believe in the humanity and reinstate one’s faith in the goodness. This real-life story of Antonina Zabinska and her husband Dr. Jan Zabinski, who in reality were awarded the Righteous Among Nations by the State of Israel for their efforts to save what Antonia described as “shipwrecked souls”. The film is about how the couple decided not to succumb to the odds and do their best possible to save Jews from being killed by the Nazis. Yet they took the inherent risk of doing the right thing, at a time the right thing could get you killed. There are several characters that come and go, and a few fleeting moments where it looks like the Zabinski’s placed their trust in the wrong person, thankfully the film doesn’t play that way. At its heart, this is a celebration of ordinary heroes – that is, of ordinary men and women who have displayed extraordinary heroism during extraordinary times. Such tales are often told with sycophantic adulation, which runs counter to the nature of their character/s and ultimately leaves one feeling patronized. Thankfully, its director Niki Caro knows her way around such celebrations of heroism as evinced by her previous works, placing emphasis on the difficult circumstances of the war in order to demonstrate the Żabinskis’ bravery rather than on exalting the characters per se. Scenes of life pre- and post-invasion, of life behind the ghettos and of the nail-biting process of sneaking the Jews out of the ghettos are played out with attention to detail and realism, just so the context under which the Żabinskis’ were living under as well as the danger they were putting themselves and their only son Ryszard under are felt keenly and profoundly – hence illuminating the spirit of valour and self-sacrifice their deeds exemplified.
However, the most effective moment of the film for me are not revolved around the scenes of the Jews hiding in the tunnels and the zoo cages, but instead are scenes about the animals in the zoo, before and after the initial bombing in September of 39. The scene when Antonina is riding her bicycle and calls her camel to walk alongside her, its excellent. This camel is hilarious because he makes strange noises and hops around acting like a police patrol for the zoo, which I think was extremely funny. Also, seeing Antonina help revive a baby elephant may seem slightly cheesy, but it works to establish how I’ll-see-this-through-till-the-end she is, and she pours pathos on this scene as well as many others and the moments where the animals are drifting about after the first bombing/attack is haunting and striking; I want to see a film that has this as a more central scenario someday, where we see these animals that shouldn’t be wandering around a small European city in the 30’s. For a moment, it makes the film really unique. But the animals soon go away – they must, though we’re pretty sure we’ll never see them again, which is fine – and the plot to save the Jews kicks in to gear. While this film doesn’t tread any new cinematic ground, it does what needs to be done and it does it right. However, the film is not without flaws, mainly due to the deviations created by screenwriter Angela Workman just for the sake of a genuine personal atmosphere. For example, a rather unnecessary subplot is developed between Antonina and Lutz, which sees Lutz develop a personal liking for Antonina and concomitantly engendering marital tension between Jan and Antonina. To offset the lack of tension, the film endows another subplot involving Urszula (Shira Haas), a young Jewish girl, whose rape by two German soldiers, beguiles Jan to save her from the ghetto. Plus, much of the film is spent with Antonia emphatically ushering her out of a catatonic state with art utensils and a fluffy rabbit. While these scenes inject just enough humanism without feeling melodramatic, one can’t help shaking the feeling they were added just so Jessica Chastain has something to act against. Plus, the film keeps losing momentum in between to create sequences which are meant to apparently induce tears resulting in a lot of discontent & non-connectivity. For example, how did Jan got involved with an underground group to fight with Nazis, did Antonina know about it? Also, how some workers still remain in the zoo amidst so much of war and chaos was not explained. Given the ruthlessness of Nazis, the lackluster attitude of Lutz towards Antonina and her family when he found the secrets is very questionable. Coming to the performances, Jessica Chastain is fantastic as usual, accent and all. Chastain‘s portrayal of Antonina is quite believable. There are no doubts that Chastain is externally very beautiful and fragile-appearing. In her understated performance, she plays a resourceful, animal-loving Polish lady to perfection. Johan Heldenbergh, the Danish actor who played her husband was great too, he and Chastain were a force to be reckoned with and had great chemistry. Michael McElhatton was also fantastic in his supporting role as Jerzyk, I recognized him from Game of Thrones where he played the conniving Roose Bolton. He is a very talented actor and shined brightly in his supporting role. Daniel Bruhl also excels in playing a despicable villain. On the whole, ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is a well filmed and well-acted simple story of kindness, bravery, and resilience let down by a weak script.
Directed – Niki Caro
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 127 minutes