‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’
Director: Niki Caro
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Daniel Bruhl
Reprising the years of the holocaust under Hitler’s inhuman Nazi regime, this film set in a Zoo in Warsaw, Poland, is an adaptation of a true story- an international best seller of the same name by Diane Ackerman. There are thousands of stories of bravery during Hitler’s reign and like ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Sophie’s Choice’ this one is also about the rescue of several hundred’s of Jews – this time it’s from right under the nose of Hitler’s pet, Germany’s Head Zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Buehl).
This work of heart takes us back to 1939, the onset of the second world war, when Hitler was about to invade Poland. The Zabinski’s- Antonina & Jan (Jessica Chastian, Johan Heldenbergh) are hands-on caretakers of a private zoo which falls victim to Hitler’s attack. Many of the animals die and the coveted are transported back to Germany. Antonina, Jan and their young son though, stay on and set-up a plan for developing a pig farm under the guise of providing for food for Hitler’s troops, but in actuality – to keep the zoo safe for hiding over 300 Jews, surreptitiously rescued from the concentration camps. Jan, in addition to masterminding the rescue operation, also got involved in the Polish underground resistance and disappeared for a few years.
The film opens into the Zoo and the camera takes us right into the Zabinski’s bedroom where their young son is sleeping alongside a couple of baby lion cubs. And when the camera moves outside we see Antonina in a flowery dress, cycling rapidly through the zoo with a baby camel running closely alongside her. Lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, parakeets all look friendly and tamed. It’s a sight that warms your heart, But not for long. The war destroys almost everything there and Lutz’s plan to resurrect the auroch, a wild cow that went extinct in 1627, keeps him in the vicinity, and at hand to extend his lascivious villainy.
The war action is limited to sounds of bombing and scenes of devastation alongside rounding up of Jews, a rape and some bestial cruelty. It’s the drama at the zoo which is captivating. The hidden guests are nearly caught , Antonino’s playing of the piano announces the time for relaxation and alertness, the truck that carries waste from the camps acts as a conduit for the escaped Jews and a bakery acts as a front for preparing false papers for their escape.
The violence is kept to a minimum. It all feels very sanitised and prettily packaged. You are allowed to imagine the gory horrors of Hitler’s reign of terror. In this film the special relationship between husband and wife makes the effort more compelling. There’s mistrust and heartache but the two wade through the murky distensions to forge a love story that stays with you through the horrors of their time. Chastain and Heldenbergh are both exceptional. There’s an old-world luminosity about Chastian’s performance and Heldenbergh provides strong support. Bruhl’s role may be limiting but he makes a meal of it nevertheless. The camerawork is a little too pretty for a film about war. It’s probably designed that way to keep the romance in central focus. In fact the horrors of the war pale into insignificance when compared to the story of Antonino and Jan and their efforts to save several lives along the way. This may not be an exceptional film but it certainly is a compelling one.
Watch the trailer of ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’