"The Zookeeper's Wife," the latest film from director Niki Caro ("Whale Rider"), is perhaps one of the most unknown historical dramas that took place during World War II and forms part of the canon of Holocaust films.
The film opens not long before Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), live with their son, Ryszard (Tim Radford and Val Maloku), in a villa at the Warsaw Zoo.
Jan is the head of the zoo but Antonina is not afraid to get her hands dirty. She is what we would today call an animal whisperer for her skills with animals in distress. In fact, the film opens with her helping to deliver a baby elephant. Nonthreatening animals roam the zoo freely and a couple of small cats even sleep in the house with the family. It seems like an idyllic existence for the Jan and Antonina, who work together as partners to run the zoo.
Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), who heads the Berlin Zoo, visits the Zabinskis and convinces Antonina to persuade Jan to send him their best animals for safekeeping during the inevitable war that is looming over Europe. Heck makes it a point to declare his nonpolitical status. It is a sad day when the trucks arrive to take the best of the Warsaw Zoo's animals.
Germany invades Poland months later and the bombings begin, traumatizing the family and animals. The German soldiers move into the zoo and take over spaces that once housed animals. Their first task, headed by Heck, now a captain and the Reich's newly appointed chief zoologist, is to kill off almost all the remaining animals "because they will not survive the winter." Heck had hidden the fact from Antonina that he wanted the animals for genetic experimentation.
The Zabinskis have many friends, among them a Jewish couple. Jan and Antonina hide the wife in their basement while her husband goes into the ghetto to help his people. She is the first of more than 300 Jews that the couple will hide almost in plain sight during the war by getting the Germans to agree for them to turn the zoo into a pig farm.
All of them survived except for two, according to the postscript at the end. Music played a significant part in the Zabinskis' life and their piano has a large role in keeping their human guests safe during the war.
Diane Ackerman wrote the Zabinskis' story in The Zookeeper's Wife (2007) on which the film was based. I haven't read the book yet but the film tells a good story as scripted by Angela Workman.
However, there is an unevenness to the film. For example, it runs hot when it tells the story of the young teen Urszula, who is taken by two Nazi soldiers and presumably raped. Jan helps her escape from the ghetto (where he comes and goes to retrieve garbage for the pigs — until the garbage gives out as the people are starved).
Once Urszula is safe in the Zabinskis' basement, Antonina's gifts are truly revealed in patience and kindness. Shira Haas is amazing as the wounded girl who experiences Antonina's compassion during her years in hiding.
The film runs cold at times because the look of it didn't convince me enough of the horror of those years. It's similar to the film "Brooklyn," about an Irish immigrant to America: Her clothes were too clean, too pastel; the film didn't externalize her inner struggles very well. Toward the end, Antonina and her son have to flee the zoo (after Jan has been captured); when they return, they seem no worse for the wear.
Perhaps I am being too picky. "The Zookeeper's Wife" is a big film that required building a replica of the zoo, adding incredible special effects and working with an assortment of animals. It is a story of selflessness and bravery I had not heard before and it surely inspires.
Chastain as Antonina interacts very well with the animals, real or as CGI. I am sure some won't care for her Polish accent and she doesn't overdo it. Except for one animal, I couldn't tell which ones were computer generated; they looked very real (and none were harmed in the making of the film).
Brühl is convincing in his role as Heck, the treacherous and handsome Nazi. To keep his attention away from the house and places in the zoo where Jews are in hiding for the long term or in transit, Antonina flirts with him over the course of many months, creating tension with Jan. When Heck discovers her cunning, he tries to assault her; Antonina and her son barely escape.
I presume the Zabinskis were Catholic since they name their new baby Teresa "after the saint." It seems strange that there was no sign in their home of their Christian faith, though they certainly lived it. The Zabinskis have been honored as "righteous among the nations" at Yad Vashem in Israel.
For New Zealand director Caro, "The Zookeeper's Wife" adds to her roster of films and television shows that tell stories from a woman's perspective: "Whale Rider" (2002), "North Country" (2005), and a 2017 television series, "Anne," a retelling of Anne of Green Gables that will debut on Netflix in May. She also produced the 2001-2002 New Zealand television series "Being Eve."
There is a large cast and a lot going on in "The Zookeeper's Wife," which may explain why there doesn't seem to be much complexity in the characters, except for the relationship between Urszula and Antonina.
Despite the animals in the ads and trailers for the film, "The Zookeeper's Wife" is not a film for children. It is a war film that shows war crimes. Even if its art does not raise to the level of other films about the Holocaust (I am thinking of "Schindler's List"), it is a worthy contribution to films about these tragic years and the heroic people who put their lives on the line to save the lives of Jewish people during the worst genocide in history.
[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]