In theaters this Thursday, Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife is a gripping tale that delivers a fresh perspective on the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War 2.
The narrative (based on the book by Diane Ackerman) centers around Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain) Zabinski. They are co-owners of the Warsaw Zoo and spend their day assisting with the upkeep of the animals. Their world is shaken in September of 1939 when Germany invades Poland and seizes control of their zoo and the rest of the country. Shocked by these events and the oppression of many Jewish families, Mr. and Mrs. Zabinski’s decide to risk everything and use tunnels underneath their zoo as a means of hiding these families (until they can escape Poland). Complicating their operation is Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). Heck seems to have taken an interest in their animals and Antonina as well. Will he catch on to what they are doing? Will the Zabinskis be able to stay one step ahead of the Nazi’s?
Writing and Direction
Screenwriter Angela Workman deftly adapts Diane Ackerman’s novel remaining mostly faithful to the source material while still showing off her flair for romanticism. For example, she creates a story line where Lutz Heck develops feelings for Mrs. Zabinski. While some might feel this was a plot device to escalate the tensions between Antonina and her husband, in reality, it demonstrated just how deep their bond is. No matter how hard Heck pushed himself on her, she never relented and stayed faithful to her husband throughout the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.
Director Niki Caro appears to make a conscious effort to place the focus of this story solely on the families that were helped by Antonina and Jan Zabinski. The power in this tale stems from how Jewish families in Warsaw survived such horrific conditions. Seeing dozens of Jewish people choosing to hide under a pile of pig slop in hopes of slipping by the guards at the Warsaw Ghetto was certainly horrifying.
Jessica Chastain was brilliant in the role of Antonina Zabinski. What is fascinating about this character is that it wasn’t one audience have seen her portray before. In films such as Miss Sloane and Interstellar, Chastain portrays strong women who tend to be dominant. In The Zookeeper’s Wife, Chastain plays a character who is much more reserved than any she’s ever played. That’s not to say Antonina isn’t strong as well. She has more of a quiet strength, and her dominance is shown in how effective they are at keeping these Jewish families hidden from Nazi detection.
Johan Heldenbergh and Daniel Bruhl are equally excellent in the roles of Jan Zabinski and Lutz Heck. Heldenbergh portrays Mr. Zabinski as a kind man whose love of animals and community define him. He’s driven to do the right thing and persuades Antonina to help their Jewish friends. Bruhl strikes an appropriate balance in his portrayal of Lutz Heck. Heck is drawn to the Zabinski’s zoo due to the unusual variety of animals. He’s a man of science with interests in species creation. Lutz is also a little unhinged due to his romantic desires towards Antonina. It’s this desire that makes him blind to the clues pointing towards the Zabinski’s activities.
The Cinematography of Andrij Parekh was splendid throughout the film. Parekh made use of a muted color palette to help capture how somber Warsaw was following the invasion and eventual occupation by the Nazis. He also made use panning shots to capture the sheer scope of atrocities occurring in Warsaw’s Ghetto. However, Parekh’s most stirring shot was a school teacher walking towards a train with others headed to a concentration camp. He’s able to capture in one close-up shot of his face the exact moment his spirit broke. It’s when he looks to his right and sees that none of their luggage is being loaded onto the train. He immediately looks resigned to the idea that where ever they are headed may very well be his final resting place.
Niki Caro and Jessica Chastain are both to be commended for bringing to light a story of not just the Zabinski’s heroism, but of a community of individuals whose love for others was immeasurable. While The Zookeeper’s Wife isn’t the best movie ever made about the Holocaust, the lessons in the film are certainly valuable. Everyone deserves dignity and respect no matter what religion they choose to follow. A lesson that was timely then and certainly is now.