Review: “The Zookeeper’s Wife”
Watching the trailer for this movie, I hoped for an emotional, compelling story. This is a true story set in Warsaw during the German occupation of Poland. Not only did it give me the emotion I was expecting but it gave viewers a dramatic and beautiful story about the triumph of love over hate.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” begins in 1939 Poland where Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) run the Warsaw Zoo, the animals flourishing under their care. When the Germans invade Poland, their zoo is devastated, as some animals are killed in the bombing and others are shipped to Germany. They must report to Hitler’s chief zoologist, Lutz Henk (Daniel Bruhl) as they struggle to hold onto their home. But Jan and Antonina find themselves risking themselves and their son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford & Val Maloku) to hide a friend from the Germans and then begin covertly working for the Resistance as they smuggle hundreds from the Warsaw Ghetto, using their zoo to hide those in danger until they can be gotten to safety. While Jan goes out daily to bring people to safety, Antonina keeps Lutz at bay, playing on his desire for her while she hides those rescued in tunnels beneath the zoo.
This story is emotional and dark at times but as it unfolds, none of it is extraneous. While there are scenes that are heartbreaking, beginning with the devastation of the zoo, each piece builds on the narrative to ratchet up the tension and foreshadow later events in the film. There are details built one upon the other, a glance between Jan and Antonina demonstrating their profound love for each other, Antonina stepping between her son and soldiers to keep him safe, these are the elements that grant the viewer a window into their lives and show how much they are risking to help strangers in this war. Not only does it demonstrate their courage but the other characters are shown doing seemingly insignificant tasks that take on greater meaning over the course of the events in the story, such as stamping cards and creating new identities for the people the Zabinski’s help to safety. The writing is breathtaking as it drives the historical events forward in this engaging, compelling story. And while some events are difficult to see on screen, there are never any gratuitous scenes of violence or death. Some scenes are left to the viewer’s imagination, the hints enough to tell you what has actually happened.
The acting matches the writing. Jessica Chastain does a beautiful portrayal of Antonina Zabrinski beginning with her appearance on screen as she visits each of the animals in her zoo, love and compassion for each one shining in her face. That compassion is so clearly developed throughout the movie as she moves from caring for animals to caring for her “human zoo.” The struggle between the character’s desire to help those in need and her disgust for Lutz is so evident in Jessica’s acting. Antonina’s warmth and caring are clearly what drives this film and without the nuanced performance that Jessica Chastain gives us, it would not have worked nearly as well. Not only that, but in the film her character plays the piano. Each piece was actually performed by Jessica.
She is not the only outstanding performance, however. Belgium born Johan Heldenbergh does an incredible job as Jan Zabrinski as he combats the horrors of what he witnesses in the Ghetto with what he sees Antonina doing to prevent the discovery of their ‘guests.’ The horror in his eyes as he sees children being starved and worse is true to what I felt watching events unfold. Daniel Bruhl manages to build a character that is both a man of breeding and one willing to do evil in the name of his government and science. He is compelling in his acting. Even minor characters shine in their roles, Shira Haas dynamic as Ursula, a young woman from the Ghetto and Iddo Goldberg equally excellent as the Zabrinski’s Jewish friend that they rescue.
If you are an animal lover, some scenes in this film might break your heart but you would do well to remain in your seat. If you do, you will see the courage of two people who saved 300 people from the Warsaw Ghetto and managed courage in the face of great odds, risking their home and their family to save people they didn’t even know. Instead of merely surviving, this is the story of human spirit to not only survive the worst but bring compassion and love to others in worse danger. It is compelling, engaging and left me with hope for our future.
Rating: 5 stars