‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ a portrait of courage amid cruelty
As a personal tale of ordinary people taking extraordinary, life-threatening measures to help strangers, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” astounds. As a Holocaust drama with scenes of wrenching sadism and cruelty, it is sadly all too familiar.
“Zookeeper” tells a true story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Belgium’s Johan Heldenbergh), caretakers of the Warsaw Zoo. They reside in an impressive villa just inside its gates, a spacious home with a living/working space in a basement with connecting tunnels to the animal pavilions.
Hitler began World War II on Sept. 1, 1939, by invading and conquering Poland. That day, the Zabinskis are greeted by Lutz Heck (Germany’s Daniel Bruhl), the unctuous Nazi in charge of the Berlin Zoo who “borrows” their best animals for breeding. The rest are slaughtered.
With all Jews marked for relocation and death, Antonina impulsively hides a Jewish friend in the basement. She knows discovery would mean she, Jan and their young son would be executed. As years pass and war progresses Jan devises a plan to visit the ghetto for waste material — and leave with Jews hidden beneath the muck in his truck. In the basement they’re fed and sheltered until they can be moved. They must be silent all day until midnight, when the Nazi patrol retires. Soon, with forged papers from an ingenious ghetto official, Jan is able to openly walk out of the ghetto with workers — who never return. Eventually, hundreds of Jews are hidden and then transferred to safety by the Zabinskis.
Inspired by Antonina’s wartime journals, the basis of Diane Ackerman’s book and Angela Workman’s screenplay, “Zookeeper’s Wife” is directed by Niki Caro, whose excellent “McFarland, USA” is another incredible true story.
“Zookeeper’s Wife” is most compelling in its illuminating portrait of Antonina. Chastain, with Meryl Streepperfect Polish-accented English, easily conveys Antonina’s cruel situation. With the besotted amorous Lutz, hers is a delicate dance — polite without suggesting seduction. Jan, predictably perhaps, is incensed but powerless to attack Lutz so he vents his frustrations on Antonina. When Jan disappears on a mission, she is left on her own, pregnant, a guardian of those below and a keeper of the flame.
(“The Zookeeper’s Wife” has disturbing, explicit violence against humans and animals, brief nudity and profanity.)