For decades filmmakers have plowed the dark and savage subject of the Holocaust. Countless movies have been made documenting the heartbreaking atrocities as well as self-sacrificing acts of valor. There are some who feel we are given too many of these films (a form of Holocaust movie fatigue perhaps). It’s a sentiment I can’t say I share especially when filmmakers continue to find deeply human stories and experiences to share.
Such is the case for Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. Based on Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book, this story of Polish couple Jan and Antonina Żabiński is mostly a fact-based account set during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Ackerman’s book leaned heavily on the diaries of Antonina Żabiński. Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman are careful to keep the same authenticity in their telling.
The film begins just before the September 1, 1939 Nazi invasion. In its idyllic opening scene Antonina (Jessica Chastain) glowingly rides her bicycle through the Warsaw Zoo which she operates with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). She makes her way to the front gate where people have gathered. She opens the zoo and greets the visitors as they enter.
This opening scene sets up the inevitable clash that comes when the Nazis invade Poland. The zoo is ravaged by aerial bombers and like Warsaw is soon under Nazi occupation. Seeking a way to keep their zoo and with practically no animals left, Jan turns to pig farming as a way to support the German war effort. But in truth it’s a guise to hide the Żabiński’s true conviction – to save as many Jews as they can and right under the Nazi’s noses, particularly that of German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl).
On the surface Workman’s script doesn’t place a heavy focus on the horrors that took place. We do get glimpses and often quite potent ones. Yet some feel the film doesn’t go far enough in its depictions of the atrocities. In reality there were quieter stories that required just as much heroism despite garnering little attention. Workman is rightly content to stay within her narrative bounds.
Caro’s direction works much the same. She doesn’t anchor her film in a tortuous visual representation. To the film’s benefit she’s clearly not interested in meeting common war movie expectations. Instead there is a soulful grace to her presentation that oozes empathy yet still manages to be tense and harrowing.
Most importantly both Caro and Workman wisely lean on their biggest strength – Jessica Chastain. She gives us an earnest and unassuming Antonina with a strong moral conviction that drives her heroism. Chastain masterfully juggles her character’s fortitude and stoicism with human elements of fear and uncertainty. It’s a delicate balance that makes this portrait of courage all the more inspiring. Chastain’s work is deserving of some genuine Oscar consideration.
Despite its many positives the film’s final act is a bit bumpy. The story darts forward in time more than once and some fairly big developments happen with little attention given to them. It’s easy to follow but it did seem as though the back end was rushed even though it still packed some strong emotional punches. But that doesn’t undermine some wonderful work from a talented group of women. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” may not satisfy those looking for a more visceral experience, but not every Holocaust story requires that approach. Many of these stories weren’t as pronounced, yet they were just as powerful and inspirational. This is such a story.
VERDICT – 4 STARS