In German-occupied Poland during the darkest days of World War II, a zookeeper and his wife managed to save the lives hundreds of Jewish people, many of whom were detained in the Warsaw Ghetto, by giving them shelter and refuge on the zoo grounds. This extraordinary true story is dramatized rather effectively in director Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on the non-fiction book by the naturalist writer Diane Ackerman.
Caro, who directed “Whale Rider” and “McFarland, USA,” imbues the production with a glossy sheen, which in the confines of trailers and advertisements might make this look dismissible. In mining the drama of WWII for cinematic stories, audiences have rightfully been trained to be suspicious of those that look too pretty. You’re certain that “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is doomed to suffocating sentimentality, emotional blackmail and too-neat resolutions.
But despite a romanticized beginning, in which our heroine Antonina (Jessica Chastain, affecting an accent that you’ll get used to, I swear) seems to live the most picture perfect life that’s ever existed (frolicking with the free-roaming zoo animals, sipping tea on her balcony and gazing lovingly at her doting husband and son), Caro keeps the action and emotion real and grounded throughout. She chooses silences and understatement over heightened stakes. This inherently dramatic and amazing story doesn’t need dressing up – it just needs to be told.
The stage-setting is a necessary evil, but used wisely enough to introduce the characters and set up what will be an ongoing personal conflict that will serve as a sort of microcosm for the war – the friendship with a German zoologist, Lutz (Daniel Bruhl), that turns into an increasingly uneasy alliance when the war starts.
Chastain’s Antonina is ethereal, motherly and tenacious. She might be the zookeeper’s wife, but she has just as much if not more of a command over the place as her milquetoast husband. In fact, she treats the animals in the zoo as she would her own child. When an elephant’s baby is in distress and near death, Antonina rushes to their aid, calling each by name and telling the mother elephant that everything will be OK if she just gives her space to free the baby’s airway. Don’t worry, this isn’t a Disney movie, there’s no sign that the elephants are responding to the names, but there’s a fundamental comfort between the human and animal that’s undeniable.
By the time the invasion starts and the zoo is bombed and destroyed, you feel the loss of something that was once just good and pure. It’s distressing to watch the occupying soldiers shoot animals whether out of fear, wartime necessity or just plain evil and a reminder that humans are not the only ones who suffer in war. The animal metaphors can be a little on the nose, though, and the script makes Antonina over-explain her fondness for the creatures over humans (“you can see exactly what’s in their hearts”).
But the real power of the story is in what Antonina and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) do for the persecuted Jews – risking their lives to stage elaborately planned extractions from the ghetto and provide refuge for those they saved in their own home.
An already tense situation is made even more heightened when Lutz, now Hitler’s chief zoologist, takes a special interest in their zoo (and Antonina). His constant presence threatens to derail the entire operation and causes strife in Antonina’s marriage when Jan’s jealousy gets the best of him. It’s a tawdry sideshow, but Chastain and Bruhl make it captivating.
Look past the sepia and the dreary title, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is riveting both inspiring and comes as a welcome reminder in this time of uncertainty that even in the face of astonishing evil, humanity and goodness can also rise to the occasion.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking.” Running time: 124 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Story: Lindsey Bahr