Humane behaviour counters beastly evil in wartime Warsaw
I cannot remember the last time a film opened on such an idyllic note. Jessica Chastain, her shimmering skin complemented by a flowery sundress, is bicycling through a small but well kept and well stocked zoo, her hair billowing in the breeze. Elephants gambol; lions stand together companionably; monkeys frolic. But wait, is that — yes, a baby camel, galloping happily after her!
Clearly, things have to get worse. And here comes the subtitle: Warsaw. Summer. 1939. Things are about to get much, much worse.
The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on a 2007 non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman, tells the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinska, who were running the Warsaw Zoo when the Second World War began. When the Nazis invaded Poland, the zoo was damaged by bombing; many of the animals were killed, and the best of the rest were relocated to Berlin.
In a subplot that surely deserves its own movie, German animal researcher Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) has a plan to resurrect the auroch, a wild cow that went extinct in 1627. In Angela Workman’s script, “Hitler’s head zoologist” is reduced to the two-dimensional villain that title implies.
But enough about animals. With their zoo now devoid of its regular occupants, Antonina and her husband (Johan Heldenbergh, whom you may know from The Broken Circle Breakdown) more or less stumble into a scheme to hide fugitive Jews in the basement and in parts of the zoo itself. Soon, one lodger turns into many.
Travelling to the Warsaw ghetto to collect scraps for the pig farm now on the zoo grounds, Jan returns with refugees, some of whom stay for the duration of the war, while others move on to different safe houses. All this under the nose of Lutz, who is quickly developing his own animal attraction to Antonina. She tolerates him out of necessity.
As directed by Niki Caro, the action skips through the years of the war, touching down every few months for a bit of drama. There’s a young woman, still in shock from being raped by German soldiers, nursed back to sanity by the kindly Antonina, who gives her a pet rabbit. There’s a scene in which the guests in the basement are almost caught. There’s an older man who consistently refuses Jan’s offers to rescue him, because he needs to look after the ghetto’s children.
It’s all very dramatic, very serious and (with a few exceptions) quite sanitized. It’s also just a little too prettily shot for the dire subject matter. This is essentially Schindler’s List in a zoo; and, like Oskar Schindler, the Zabinskas would receive the honorific of Righteous Among the Nations for their actions.
But the film consistently averts its gaze from the more horrific aspects of the Holocaust, and includes an almost comical number of shots of the angelic Antonina cradling a small animal — I counted seven, including an elephant, a bunny, a skunk, a lion cub, a wolf pup, a pig and, in one scene, a monkey who is holding a smaller monkey.
Perhaps the problem is that the blissful mood of that opening scene lingers on through the film. On the plus side, its 14A rating in Ontario means it could function as an introduction to the Holocaust for more mature children, without completely scarring them. And it remains an incredible tale of humane behaviour countering a beastly evil. ∂∂∂
The Zookeeper’s Wife opens March 31 across Canada.
Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinska in director Niki Caro's adaptation of The Zookeeper's Wife.