THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE
PG-13, 124 mins.
2017, PG-13, 124 mins.
Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinski / Johan Heldenbergh as Jan Zabinski / Daniel Brühl as Lutz Heck / Val Maloku as Ryszard Zabinski / Martha Issová as Regina Kenigswein
Frederick Preston as Miecio Kenigswein
Directed by Niki Caro / Written by Angela Workman, based on the book by Diane Ackerman
As a student of history, I've always found the historical war genre to be right up my alley. In particular, I appreciate films that find a unique viewfinder through which to look at and examine past events that we think have been covered from all possible angles.
There have been countless dramas about World War II and the
Holocaust, but THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE - based on the non-fiction book of the
same name by Diane Ackerman - finds a fresh and mostly unseen perspective of
the events in question.
Somewhat like SCHINDLER'S LIST, the film chronicles how the decent
and noble actions of seemingly ordinary people saved lives that would have
been slaughtered under Nazi rule.
fictionalized, but mostly fact-based film deals with Antonina and Jan
Zabinski (played impeccably well by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh
respectively), proprietors of the Warsaw Zoo.
Opening in 1939, the film showcases what a peaceful and inviting
animal commune the couple have established, which features a rich
menagerie of exotic creatures large and small.
These opening sections of the film are wonderful, showing Antonina's
routine of partaking in daily zoo rounds while welcoming in eager
Running the zoo is not without peril, though, as one early scene
demonstrates, which involves Antonina's coming to the nocturnal rescue of a baby elephant that's just been born with blocked air passages...and all
while trying to ease the concerns of the infant's panic stricken and much
All in all, the
Zabinski's zoo is an animal paradise that thrills its daily customers, but
this mostly ideal human-animal cohabitating paradise is changed forever when Nazi Germany
invades Warsaw, laying it and the zoo to waste with a devastating air
strike (the film never shies away from showing how the ravages of war
affects both people and animals).
With their zoo left in ruins and most of their animals destroyed as
well, the Zabinskis are left emotionally rattled as to what will happen
to their passion project and livelihoods.
When the Nazis swoop in and decide to use the Warsaw zoo as a new base of
operations, Jan and Antonina realize that the continued future of their
zoo seems grim.
Even though a Nazi zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), expresses
to them a yearning to help their remaining animals, the couple still
remains steadfastly suspicious of the new occupying force.
It's at this
precise stage when the Zabinskis hatch a fairly ingenious plan: When they
begin to see how countless local Jews in the ghettos are being herded up like cattle and
summarily dislocated from their homes and families, the couple springs
into action and decides to round up as many as they can and hide them - nearly in plain sight - in newly vacant
underground pens at the zoo.
Part of their audacious scheme involves retrofitting the zoo into a
pig farm to feed the troops, which will involve smuggling in Jews from the
Warsaw ghettos under gallons of rations to feed the pigs.
Jan and Antonina become largely successful in their highly risky endeavor, but when the threat of having their new Jewish residents being
discovered, the Zabinskis begin to feel remarkable pressure to preserve
the secrecy of their mission despite being under the constant scrutiny of
WIFE is a fascinating curiosity piece in the sense that it tells a fact
based tale of the Holocaust that I'm quite sure that most people entering
the cinema will have probably never heard of.
Again, considering the vast and endless permutations of WWII dramas
that litter the cinematic world, THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE deserves points for
legitimately segregating itself well apart from the crowded pack.
That, and the central tale of the utterly selfless actions of the
Zabinskis is undeniably gripping, moving, and inspirational.
What they did for those Jewish refugees was not easy, nor was it
THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE celebrates the courage of regular people during times
of war as well; all in all, the couple saved the lives of nearly 300
Jewish people, with only two of them in question being re-captured by the
Nazis and murdered.
300 may seem like an insignificant amount, but considering the
circumstances surrounding the Zabinki's risky plan, it's a small miracle
that they saved as many as they did.
WIFE has an authentically rendered period and production design that
doesn't draw needless attention to itself, thanks large in part to
director Niki Caro's (WHALE RIDER) low key and understated direction.
Beyond the film's handsomely mounted look and feel, THE ZOOKEEPER'S
WIFE contains many moments of haunting power under Caro's tactful eye.
The initial bombing of Warsaw is portrayed in all of its
devastating magnitude (animal lovers in particular may have difficulty
watching the zoo's denizens being murdered by the dozen during the
Beyond capturing the stark visceral aesthetic of the film's cruel
world and times, Caro also taps into some deeply poignant
One involves an emotionally damaged teenage Jewish girl, the victim
of Nazi gang rape, that Antonina tries to heal in the best manner she
knows how via the soothing therapy of animals.
These individual moments in THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE have a real
film's dramatic charge is the reliably dedicated Jessica Chastain,
who once again demonstrates here a deep commitment to immersing herself in
her character and providing another richly layered performance.
Even though her Slavic accent is initially a bit distracting, Chastain is
nevertheless soft spokenly empowered in relaying Antonina's headstrong
courage and resolve to do the right thing.
She's flanked by the equally stellar work of co-star Johan
Heldenbergh as her gallant husband.
Daniel Bruhl is one of our most underrated actors and is in equally
fine form playing Heck, but I'm beginning to wonder whether or not the
fine performer will be typecast for the rest of his career for playing Nazis.
weakest aspects of THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE involves a strangely delineated
love triangle (completely fabricated) between Heck, Antonina, and Jan that
feels like it's from a whole other kind of sappy and melodramatic WWII
I also don't think that the script really knows what to do with
Bruhl's character and seems indifferent as to whether he should be seen as
a figure of pure evil or one that's driven to evil because of his
affiliation to Nazi Germany.
The film's final act also seems hastily rushed and never feels as
fully formed and confidently orchestrated as the story's first two thirds.
Perhaps trying to cram in roughly seven years of history into a
film that's barely two hours doesn't help matters much either; the story
of the Zabinskis might have benefited substantially more from, say, an
HBO mini-series treatment than a feature film.
Still, I'm inclined to recommend THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE, mostly because it's made with the most honorable of intentions and is lovingly crafted and acted. The underlining themes here of the unwavering power of human kindness will most certainly strike a chord with viewers, not to mention that, in the end, the story of the Zabinskis struggling to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of people that would have mostly likely had their lives ended under Nazi rule deserves our attention. THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE isn't a transformative and unforgettably searing Holocaust story that will permanently get under your skin, but it sheds a strong light on the heroic actions of a brave few that fundamentally changed the lives of countless others.
And that's worth celebrating.