In the last month, I’ve reviewed a couple of monster movies. King Kong: Skull Island considered the impact of man on the environment. Life featured a scary Martian life form. In The Zookeeper’s Wife, however, all of the monsters are human.
In The Zookeeper’s Wife, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) run the Warsaw Zoo and live on the premises with their son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford/Val Maloku). At first, their lives seem like a dream, as Antonina rides her bicycle alongside a baby camel and helps a mother elephant with her infant. When the war comes to Poland, however, the dream quickly turns into a nightmare. German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) helps the Zabinksi’s keep their zoo running by allowing them to turn it into a pig farm for the war effort, but only after he has taken their best animals to Germany and begun using their enclosures as armories for the German army. Disgusted by what they have seen of the ghetto in Poland, the Zabinski’s begin using the tunnels that run from the enclosures to their basement as a means of smuggling Jews out of Warsaw to safety. In order to do so, they must operate right under the noses of the Nazis, putting everything on the line.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is both beautiful and hard to watch. Visually and in the dialogue, the filmmakers do a good job of subtly drawing parallels between the ghetto and the zoo. I do not know how I failed to prepare myself for the experience, but I was a wreck, as the film begins with the devastating impact World War II has on the zoo and basically does not relent. It raises questions about why there are elephants in Warsaw to begin with, and pairs them with questions of how humans can be so brutal to each other, as well as the other animals. Along with these parallels and stirring questions, the film also dwells in the ironies of the experience at the zoo without getting heavy-handed about them. Antonina refers to their operation as a “human zoo,” a statement that is meant to be slightly cheering, but also connects tragically to the atrocities going on that she does not know about. Similarly, the Zabinski’s are aware of the irony of using a pig farm to hide Jews, and even bring scraps of the meat to their co-conspirators in the ghetto as a good-will offering. Their kindness and its acceptance become another small way the film raises the specter of the Holocaust without becoming a Holocaust movie outright. Much of the film is more focused on the Polish resistance.
Unsettling as the film is, it is also beautifully made. The animals are beautiful in and of themselves, but the zoo sets, period costumes and other touches create the world of the Warsaw Zoo in such a way that it manages to remain a hopeful space even through so much hardship. The relative prosperity with which the Zabinski’s are able to continue makes a striking contrast to the poverty of the ghetto, driving home the responsibility the couple feels to do what they can.
The acting in the film is incredible. Jessica Chastain captures the particular mixture of tenderness and grit that stems from Antonina’s love of the animals and her background as a refugee. Her chemistry with Johan Heldenbergh helps portray a loving, tough couple able to endure the hardships of the war and the strain Lutz’s pursuit of Antonina puts on their relationship. As Urszula, a young girl attacked by two German soldiers, Shira Haas takes the audience on a journey from trauma to healing that demonstrated marvelous talent.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is suspenseful, steadily paced, and as devastating as its characters are heroic. I do not know the last time that I cried so hard at a movie. For its moving story and the craft with which the film was made, I rate it 4/5 stars.
The Zookeeper’s Wife was written by Angela Workman based on the book by Diane Ackerman and directed by Niki Caro. It runs 124 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking.
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