The Zookeeper’s Wife, rated PG-13
The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the amazing true story of a Polish couples’ courage and self-sacrifice during World War II.
This film was written by Angela Workman and based on Diane Ackerman’s 2007 bestselling book, The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, which itself was inspired by the unpublished diary of Antonina Zabinska. The film is directed by Niki Caro (McFarland, USA, Whale Rider).
The film takes place in Warsaw, Poland (though the film was actually shot in Prague), beginning in 1939. It covers seven years in the lives of Antonina Zabinski, portrayed by two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (trying her best to use a Polish accent), her husband Jan, played by Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown), and their young son Ryszard. We see that they care deeply for the animals in the zoo that they own and run. In addition, Jan is involved in the Polish Underground and the Home Army.
German bombs are falling on Warsaw and the Warsaw Zoo while German troops occupy the city. We see the violence of war with people and animals dying. When the zoo is bombed, the surviving animals are seen wandering about the city. Jewish people are taken and held in an area that is known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The Zabinski’s see what is going on and decide to provide shelter to Antonina’s best friend Magda Gross, played by Efrat Dor.
Lutz Heck, played by Golden Globe nominee Daniel Brühl (Rush), is a former colleague and the head of the Berlin Zoo, but who is now an SS officer and Hitler’s leading zoologist. After the bombings, he offers to transport the most prized animals to Berlin for safekeeping. The Zabinskis approach Heck with a plan to turn the zoo grounds into a pig farm that would serve to provide food for the German army. In reality, however, they have a plan to save as many Jews as possible and by doing so put their own lives constantly in danger.
The film’s focus is on Antonina, though it can be argued that Jan took the greater risks in this story of resistance against the Nazis. The film includes powerful themes of self-sacrifice, courage, fear and love. It also will challenge the viewer with moral dilemmas.
The film is rated PG-13 for war violence, scenes of sexual assault and sexuality, and surprisingly contains some brief gratuitous nudity. The film’s costumes, sets, and musical score all add to the film’s realism and tension. The acting performances, particularly by Chastain, Brühl and Heldenbergh are solid.
Although I can’t put my finger on it, this film is missing something. It moves along slowly, and despite the danger all around her, we don’t see Antonina feeling the fear that she had to be feeling. Overall this is a great story that the film doesn’t quite measure up to.