Director: Niki Caro/2017
There is something about films set during the horrific events of the Holocaust that not only show the worst that mankind can do to their fellow men and women, but often, what we can do right as well. Some films express it with a heavy, yet powerful heart, such as Schindler’s List, or Son of Saul. Others champion those who stood up and brought light into the darkness, like Life is Beautiful, or The Book Thief. Director, Niki Caro (McFarland, USA, and Whale Rider) has tackled this daunting subject while seeking to provide a little of the darkness and light between the examples given. Ultimately, her latest film, The Zookeeper’s Wife, is a celebration of the enduring human spirit even in the face of such evil.
Jessica Chastain, who also is a producer on the film, plays Antonina Zabinski, who along with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) serve as the caretakers of the Warsaw Zoo in Poland. The film is light and breezy as the story begins, as we are given cuteness overload with the camera giving the viewer a tour of the ill-fated zoo. There are the lions, tigers, and bears (don’t finish it!), and even an endearing little camel who runs around frantically following Antonina as she does her morning rounds.
Chastain knocks this role out of the park and is equally matched by the impressive Daniel Brühl.
Niki Caro shows a skilled and subtle approach at leading in the changing political mood through many layers going on at a local party being hosted at the Zabinski’s home. It is there that we are introduced to famed Berlin Zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). He is a man committed to his work, and one who truly understands the heart the Zabinski’s have for their animals. But as it is 1939 in Poland, it isn’t long before everything is about to change.
Events that are featured more heavily in Schindler’s List, such as the forced housing in the Warsaw ghetto for the Jewish residents of the city, are vital parts of the film, but here are pushed more to the periphery to make room for how the story of the Zabinski’s fits into the larger historical beats that have been focused upon in other films.
As Jan and Antonina watch their friends (many who are Jews) be rounded up, and the destruction of many of their beloved animals in the Nazi bombing of Warsaw, they are confronted with some hard choices. Should they take their young son and flee, or should they find a way to hang on to the zoo, and seek to try to help those being systematically rounded up?
When Lutz Heck decides that he will try to breed oxen to eventually bring back the extinct auroch, which died out in Poland in 1627, he decides to use the zoo. (Incidentally, CNN just reported that this is a current pursuit in their January 2017 article which you can read here. ) Heck is now part of the “SS”, and while he laments the loss of the animals, he is fully a part of the Third Reich with an eye on power, impossible dreams, delusions of grandeur, and the zookeeper’s wife.
Chastain does a good job bringing the heroism of the real Antonina Zabinski to life on screen. She is a strong, independent woman who is a more than capable equal to her husband as a zoo worker, in an era where that was looked down upon, with several women at the aforementioned party making comments to that effect. At the same time, she is a loving mother, and just as lost in the sea of turmoil that is raging around her with the Nazi invasion. She is also brave, shrewd, stubborn, vulnerable, and immovable in her convictions.
Chastain knocks this role out of the park and is equally matched by the impressive Daniel Brühl. While we have learned to dislike Brühl’s characters in other films such as Rush, or even Capt. America: Civil War, this may be his most despicable character yet, and he revels in it and creates a more complex bad guy than more typical 2-deminsional Nazi stooges. I found myself wondering how he would fit in with Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Göth, in Schindler’s List, though Fiennes is in a class all his own for that performance.
On the whole, audiences will find that while The Zookeeper’s Wife threads the line between weighty holocaust drama and uplifting tale of courage and hope. It’s PG-13 rating should invite more people to take a chance on a film that is well worth seeing, especially to remind us that good does overcome evil, but only when we choose to put our lives on the line for the betterment of others. If you need further proof, go visit the Warsaw Zoo today.