I saw The Zookeeper’s Wife on opening weekend at the earliest matinee. The theater was packed! I didn’t hear any sobbing, but, frankly, I felt like sobbing uncontrollably several times during the film. That doesn’t mean it was a bad film. The Zookeeper’s Wife was a very good film.
I’ve been watching World War II movies since 1945. My earliest film memories include Audie Murphy or Aldo Ray in some heroic war movie or other. Yet I’ve never seen any WWII film that that hit me with so much emotion.
Credit for the emotional punch goes to the female gaze of the film. Everything moves through the eyes of Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain), the Zookeeper’s wife. We dig in with her to relate to the animals, her family, and the frightened people snatched secretly from the Warsaw ghetto and saved in the hidden basements of the zoo.
The Zookeeper’s Wife was directed by Niki Caro and written by Angela Workman based on the book by Diane Ackerman. I read the book, but I have to agree with the friend who went to the film with me: sometimes a film is actually better than the book. Many details from the book were left out, things were simplified and streamlined, but the film had more meaning for me.
Looking at war from a woman’s point of view was gut wrenching. The music, the editing with a focus on the emotions of the women in the story, the ease the actors had with the animals – it all worked together to create unremitting powerful emotions.
A True Story of Resistance
The film is based on a true story. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), his wife Antonina, and son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and later Val Maloku) lived at and ran the Warsaw Zoo. The time was 1939. They were acquainted with a German zoologist named Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). While entertaining Heck at a cocktail party before the war, Antonina was called away. A newborn elephant wasn’t breathing.
We saw an amazing scene between Antonina, the mother elephant and the baby elephant. Brilliantly shot – the mother elephant impatiently demanding action, pushing at Antonina with her trunk, while Antonina struggled to clear the baby’s breathing. According to this article at The Directors Guild of America, very little CGI was used in the film. Kudos to the elephant, who can act almost as well as Jessica Chastain.
Although Jessica Chastain has been nominated twice for an Oscar, she has yet to win. This performance should put her in the running again. She was the perfect blend of bravery and vulnerability, of love and disgust, of compassion and resistance. The one thing I found distracting and unnecessary about her performance was the accent she used.
When the Germans began moving Jews into the Warsaw ghetto, the Zabinskis decided to hide one woman. A close friend. As time went on, they realized they could hide more people, or give them a safe place to pass through on their way elsewhere. They became resisters.
Once the bombs started falling, Heck put on a German uniform as the head zookeeper for the Reich. He took all the prize specimens to his zoo in Berlin. He became the enemy – the representative of all the cruelty, brutality, greed and danger the Nazis embody.
Heck was the person most likely to discover the secret of the people hiding in the basement. The Zabinskis convinced him to keep the zoo open to breed pigs for the German army. Plus, Heck thought he was a genius at genetic engineering and could use bison to recreate the extinct auroch. He conducted that program at the zoo. Heck was around all the time!
Heck had a thing for Antonina. Everyone who saw her save that baby elephant was impressed. To protect her family and the people she was hiding, she had to treat Heck with respect and allow him to take certain liberties by touching her. He made her hold a rope to calm a female bison during a mating scene that was brutal – not what the bison were doing, which was simply what bison do. It was the way Heck held Antonina during the whole thing that felt brutal.
Part of the arrangement to raise pigs was that they would be fed with garbage from the ghetto. That gave Jan an excuse to go in and out of the ghetto, and a way to smuggle people out.
Jan rescued a young woman named Urszula (Shira Haas) who was raped by two German soldiers. Shira Haas gave a brilliant performance as the traumatized Urszula. She was healed by Antonina with patient kindness and through the gift of a rabbit and some paint brushes. She stayed with the Zabinskis for years afterwards.
At the beginning the film, we met all the animals and learned to love them the way Antonina did. As winter approached, Heck ordered all the less than perfect genetic specimens remaining in the Warsaw zoo killed. (CGI was used for this.) This included shooting a magnificent bald eagle. In case the audience was missing the parallels to contemporary Nazi behavior, the sight of that bald eagle dropping to the ground and Heck’s curt order, “Have it stuffed and mounted,” made the point. I thought that was the worst scene. But the worst scene was yet to come.
While in the ghetto, Jan kept trying to persuade a particular rabbi to escape with him. The rabbi refused. Later there’s a scene when the Germans force everyone out of the ghetto and onto trains. Jan helped load children onto the train as he pleaded with the rabbi to come with him. Those innocent faces simply did me in, and Jan as well. He knew they weren’t going anywhere good.
Then it’s 1945, the war is not going well for Germany. The Russians close in on Warsaw and the Germans pack their loot to leave. Jan is shot while fighting with the resistance. Antonina goes to Heck to find out where Jan is. As part of the negotiation over the information Antonina wants, Heck almost rapes Antonina. He doesn’t; he has that much decency. She tells him how much he disgusts her, which means she loses her advantage over him.
She rushes back to the zoo and hurries everyone out. She knows Heck is coming and will kill them all. Without knowing what’s happened to Jan, Antonina leaves Warsaw with Ryszard and their infant daughter. It’s a year before Antonina comes back to clean up the zoo and learns that Jan survived.
They rebuilt and reopened the zoo. The Zabinskis saved over 300 lives during the war. Only 2 people who went through the zoo underground were found out and killed.
A friend of mine posted a photo of her family of over 20 on Facebook the other day saying, “When you save a life, you save a world.” She talked about the man who helped her grandparents escape the Nazis and the 20+ direct descendants alive because of it. She was making a point about immigrants, but I’m stealing her thought, because each of the 300 lives the Zabinskis saved went on to create whole new worlds.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is tense and intimately universal. It’s full of courage, bravery and the life-changing power of resistance. Go see it.
Watch the Trailer for The Zookeeper’s Wife
It’s been everywhere lately, but in case you missed it, here’s the trailer.