The Zookeeper’s Wife follows the real events of the owners’ of the Warsaw Zoo in Poland from 1939 until 1946. It centres on their moral struggle of not being a mere bystander of the ghettos and executions during the Holocaust. It’s a film that has the rare potential to educate its audience with a fascinating story, without it feeling overly dramatised. The facts of the film appear to remain intact, while also giving a voice to the often unspoken Polish perspective of the Second World War.
Director Niki Caro (McFarland, Whale Rider), uses her camera to submerge the audience in the feel of WWII. The close ups of facial expressions to emphasise the horror that was experienced. The high angle shots of the carnage of bombings and the ghettos will at times turn your stomach but in that same moment also emphasise the futility of war. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh contrasts Poland’s once rich and beautiful green scenery with its cold, wet and muddy war torn for . The culmination of Caro and Parekh efforts show a brutal yet insightful look into what the cost of the war was to the people of Poland.
In the first act we are introduced to Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenberg), his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane, The Martian) and their son Ryszard (Timothy Radford). As you would expect, they all have wonderful relationships with the zoo’s animals, everything from a skunk to an elephant. All appears to be going wonderful for the family but as Nazi Germany invades, their work, social status, relationships and whole livelihoods end up in jeopardy.
Soon after, the zoo becomes liquidated and home to Nazi patrol units. Their closest friends are branded with the Star of David and sent to the ghetto. Jan cannot handle the guilt of his conscience to leave his friends along with tens of thousands of others to be the victims of unspeakable horrors. At this point, they devise a intelligent plan to save the zoo and some lives along the way, quickly contacting their acquaintance Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, Captain America: Civil War), who is Hitler’s number one zoologist and convinces him to let them keep the zoo premises open as a pig farm for the occupying soldiers. The idea is to feed the pigs with scraps from the ghetto, and then unsuspectingly to the Germans, Jan would smuggle people out by covering them with these scraps.
The second act incorporates the middle years of the War (1940-1944). The film starts to switch between Jan’s successes in extracting the Jewish captives and also Antonina’s efforts to care for and protect them from the outside. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams uses a subtly unnerving music motif that will symbolise danger present and this builds momentum throughout the film. The audience can start to appreciate the dire situation they have elected for themselves and wonder how they manage to succeed.
As the film progresses, the toll of the ghettos on the victims is made clear, with graphic scenes to emphasise how the slightest miscalculation would be fatal for all involved. This is where Antonina starts to learn that perhaps her skills with animals can be used with humans too, only reaffirming how desperate the situation is and that sometimes you have to do be willing to do anything to do what is right. Caro conveys this notion to audience repetitively so that they may incorporate this idealism into their life because someday it might come down to you to make some fateful decision just like Jan and Antonina.
The third act felt a little rushed with the emotional investment riding at an inconstant pace. However, like what the film had set up from the beginning, it is about facing bitter truths and learning how you can make do. The film is all about not giving into moral sensibilities just because they are in the minority or it is frowned upon. You have to fight for what you believe in and whatever it takes (to a reasonable standard). The full consequences of the couple’s actions come to ahead and it might not be what the audience expects.
The acting standout of the film is Jessica Chastain; her part is outstanding and award worthy. She carries the heart and soul of the film, expertly delivering every ounce of emotion through her dialogue and actions.
This story of Jan and Antonina captured in this film is a heartwarming tale in the middle of one of the darkest and sorrowful times in human history. If it were not a true story, it is almost impossible to believe these events happened. It is beautifully told with wonderful effects to give a realistic feel and gives an impactful message for our modern times.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Zookeeper’s Wife is in Australian cinemas now.