“The Zookeeper’s Wife” – “You can never tell who your enemies are or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts. They aren’t like people.” – Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain)
Antonina (Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) run a zoo in Warsaw, and life couldn’t be better for them during the summer of 1939. A place of beauty and wonder, and on any typical morning, one might see Antonina ride her bike through the zoo and greet all of the animals with her sweet, nurturing voice.
When she says, “Good morning, my sweethearts,” the animals seem to smile back.
In a recent interview with the Phoenix Film Festival, director Niki Caro spoke about the Zabinskis, and said, “They were zookeepers. Jan was a doctor, very much the brains of the operation, but (Antonina) was the heart. He admired her so much for the person that she was and the gifts that she had.”
Antonina was an animal whisperer of the most unique sorts, but the Zabinskis’ lives became completely unsorted on Sept. 1, 1939, when the German military began bombing Warsaw and World War II arrived in Poland. Great conflict can beget even greater courage, however, and in the interest of saving lives, the Zabinskis turned their place of business and love into “a human zoo”.
Based upon true events, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a war story. Like all war stories, an incredibly difficult and emotional one in many respects, but the film is a gift, because it reveals the Zabinskis’ heroism in a time of crisis.
Animal lovers will be instantly drawn to the material from the opening shot. Caro captures Antonina sitting in a chair and watching over her sleeping son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford), while two little lion cubs lay next him on his bed. Caro and Chastain immediately succeed in establishing Antonina’s kinship with animals.
Once the Germans occupy the city and form the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, Jan and Antonina form another kinship, with the persecuted Jewish people. The film chronicles Jan and Antonina’s determination to save as many lives as they could by moving them from the ghetto to the basement of their home, right underneath the Germans’ noses. Although the picture offers some very tense moments – with a cloak and dagger feel during those movements from harm’s way to refuge – “The Zookeeper’s Wife” does not necessarily unfold as a thriller because of its overall construction.
Instead, the picture is broadly built, as it attempts to cover several aspects of the Zabinskis’ lives and the war itself. We see several of Jan’s tactics to free the Jewish people from the ghetto, their stay at the Zabinskis, Antonina’s struggle with a German zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the strain on her marriage, bigger developments and consequences of the war, the outcome of the zoo’s animals, and more.
Alas, in an attempt to cover a breadth of events, the film does not dive deeply in certain places. I wanted to see more time in exploring the day-to-day events within Jan and Antonina’s house and developing the relationships between the Zabinskis and the people who they saved. We get a good sense of these rich and complex stories, but not completely fulfilling ones. On the other hand, the movie is beautifully filmed, and during the Zabinskis’ brave deeds, Jan and Antonina managed several moving parts, as Caro does a splendid and noble job of opening up the material and allowing the audience to see into their lives.
The three leads, Chastain, Heldenbergh and Bruhl are perfectly cast in playing the lives of Antonina, Jan and Lutz. Bruhl gives Lutz a conflicted, somewhat-ineffectual flair that allows the Zabinskis to work their rescue-magic. Heldenbergh brings a grounded authenticity to Jan, a pragmatic zoologist, who suddenly – beginning in Sept. 1939 – needs to dramatically think outside the box, and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” – as denoted in the title – is Chastain’s picture. Chastain commands every scene that she steps into with a strong, feminine spirit, and delivers so many moments – of tears, wonder and joy – that help define Antonina, a hugely important female voice during the darkest times of war.
Antonina may have prided herself on loving animals, but in “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, the audience also sees that she loved people.
Image credits: Focus Features