Film Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

by Carrie Kahn on March 31, 2017

Profiles in courage: Inspiring true WWII story worth seeing

Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) face danger as they undertake a heroic humanitarian mission during the German occupation of Warsaw.

Another film to consider in the context of Passover, but for entirely different, and far more somber, reasons happens to open the same day as In Search of Israeli CuisineThe eve of Passover on April 19, 1943 marked the burning and total destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by Nazi forces, in which, over the course of a month, despite a valiant uprising, thousands of mostly Jewish Ghetto occupants were either killed or deported to concentration camps. That horrific incident is one of many detailed in The Zookeeper’s Wife, a well-crafted, emotionally powerful film that tells a true story of resistance and selfless heroism in Warsaw during World War II.

Director Niki Caro (McFarland, USA; North Country; Whale Rider) and screenwriter Angela Workman have adapted Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book of the same name into a film both chilling in its portrayal of cruelty and immoral brutality and inspiring in its portrayal of moral courage and human compassion. It’s hard to watch this picture and not think about some of the policies the current administration wants to enact, and not be horrified, disgusted, and outraged.

Caro and Workman bring us the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain), who, with their young son, lived on site at the Warsaw Zoo, of which Jan was Director. As the picture opens in 1939, Germany has invaded and occupied Poland, and the Warsaw Zoo is taken over by the Nazis. Many of the animals are shot, and some are sent to Berlin for a breeding program run by Hitler’s zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, a dead ringer for the American actor Wes Bentley), who hopes to resurrect the great extinct aurochs, in a point that not-so subtly mirrors the Germans’ obsession with human genetics. The Germans allow the Zabinskis to stay on, under the guise of using the Zoo to raise pigs for food for the German soldiers.

German officer and zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) becomes suspicious of Antonina, even as he’s drawn to her.

A Gentile couple, the Zabinskis have Jewish friends, and quickly become repelled by the Germans’ treatment of their friends and neighbors. At great danger to themselves, the couple decides to hide as many Jewish refugees as they can at the Zoo, until they can be smuggled to safe houses. Antonina in particular puts herself at grave risk, as Lutz becomes enamored with her, and she has to carefully navigate his affections to her advantage, without letting on that she’s actually terrified and repulsed by him.

What Caro and Workman convey so well in the picture is that the Zabinskis take almost no time at all to make their decision to harbor those who are being persecuted; we understand that the couple inherently just knows what the right thing to do is in the situation. The beauty of human empathy and kindness shines through in every scene featuring Chastain or Heldenbergh. Heldenbergh has an especially moving scene with a young Jewish girl who he witnesses being tormented by German soldiers that will make you weep. Both he and Chastain bring unparalleled levels of fierceness and simultaneous bravery and fear to their roles, and, as such, hold the viewer rapt and in awe of the strength of character being portrayed.

Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and some of her hidden charges are wary of movement upstairs.

Chastain is a consummate actress, but the one misstep here is her attempt at a Polish accent; let’s just say she’s no Meryl Streep on that front. Her accent fades and gets stronger from scene to scene, and her voice modulations often make her seem like she’s still perfecting the cadence and pitch, which, unfortunately, can sometimes divert attention from what otherwise is a stellar performance. Also initially distracting is the fact that the entire film is in English, which is more than a little disconcerting. In real life, of course, Antonina and Jan and everyone in Warsaw would be speaking Polish or German. I suppose making your lead actress learn Polish would be too much work, but hearing all the Polish and German characters speak only English does diminish the film’s authenticity a bit.

Filmed on location on Prague, the sharp cinematography, sets, and costumes do help to detract from the annoying language issue, which, in the end is a minor complaint. The picture tells such a gripping, courageous story with such grace and prowess that a small technical misstep is forgivable. Absorbing and skillfully told, Caro’s relevant and prescient picture deserves a wide audience.

And, as a final note, the film has received a lot of attention because it is one of very few to feature women in many key roles both in front of and behind the camera (including, of course, its director, writer, and star). Jessica Chastain actually penned an essay about her experience working on the picture that’s worth a read, especially if you’re interested in the issue of women (and lack thereof) in the film industry.


The Zookeeper’s Wife opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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