THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
Czech Republic / UK / USA
Director: Niki Caro
Runtime: 122 minutes
(3.5 / 5)
The Holocaust is the reluctant gift that keeps on giving, and I mean that with no disrespect. Seventy years after stories of bravery under extreme duress continue to make appearances in unique narratives that only fortify the notion that despite the atrocities committed against a targeted group of people solely for the reason of being Jewish, there were people who stood up and deftly managed to turn the tables against xenophobia. In the Trump age, where the threat of our nation reverting to barbaric methods of separation and discrimination, these serve as a reminder of what could happen if we become sheep and follow a mad leader blindly into oblivion . . . but that’s for another piece.
Niki Caro’s new movie focuses on a part of Poland we may not have been previously aware of: its zoo, and how it became a rather unique player in the fight against the Nazis. Antonina and Jan Zaminski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heidelbergh) run the Warsaw Zoo rather successfully — life couldn’t be better. The film’s opening sequence have the look and feel of something straight out of Disney: we see Antonina riding her bicycle as a baby camel follows her around the grounds while Jan works away quietly but clearly content. It’s an establishing scene — cemented by another in which Antonina interrupts her own dinner party attended by the rich and powerful — among them Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, repeating his Nazi role from Alone in Berlin) — to deliver a sick elephant baby back to life that tells us the kind of person she is: kind, caring, selfless.
However, war breaks out, the Nazi’s invade Poland, the zoo becomes a base of sorts for Nazi soldiers headed by Heck, and most of the animals perish — some rather cruelly at the hands of the Germans. Having little choice, the Zaminskis now have to walk an incredibly fine line in order not just to keep their place (and relative security) but to use the zoo to help Jews to escape certain death. It’s a bold move, and the movie never lets you get too comfortable. This is a risky gamble that could implode at any given second, especially since Heck, who has developed an attraction to Antonina (who has to play along if she is to carry out her part of the plan), drops in unannounced for visits.
The Zookeeper’s Wife suffers from its own isolation in that it never gives you the full scope of the horrors of war — we do hear bombings, yes. However, some of the more impacting images feature the innocent and vulnerable: a rape victim (Shira Haas) whom Antonina nurses back to life, and the unforgettable image of little children’s hands reaching up to Jan who has to help them board a train that we know is headed to a concentration camp. Chastain, dolled up in a perpetual Norma Shearer wig and a thick Polish accent, doesn’t achieve the emotional greatness that Meryl Streep did when she tackled her own horror story in Sophie’s Choice, and her character is probably a bit too perfect to be credible, but perhaps I’m being somewhat cynical. Even so, this is a crowd pleaser, solid, and entertaining.