There came a point while watching The Zookeeper’s Wife where a nagging but fundamental question kept tapping at my brain. The Polish married couple at the center of the Holocaust-era drama from masterful director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country, McFarland USA) could have ridden out World War II running the Warsaw Zoo with little or no hardship from the occupying Nazis. When most of their animals were either killed or taken to zoos in Germany, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh, best known stateside for The Broken Circle Breakdown) and wife Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) offered to raise pigs in their zoo as both a means to supply the soldiers with food and a place to get rid of trash from the nearby Warsaw Jewish ghetto. But as part of their routine with the pigs, the couple also smuggled several hundred Jews out of the ghetto and through tunnels under their zoo to freedom.
So the question that bothered me was Why? Based on real events, The Zookeeper’s Wife (written by Angela Workman, from the book by Diane Ackerman) builds a wonderful case for helping people because it’s the right thing to do. I mean, a (non-Jewish) couple took advantage of the trust the Nazis placed in them and ended up rescuing 300 people. This is not a story about doing something for profit or power or strategic advantage. This is a story about seeing a situation as appalling and actually getting up off one’s ass and doing something, rather than looking on in shame or guilt, and doing nothing.
The heart and soul of the film is Antonina, who is known as an animal whisperer and later becomes something of a Nazi whisperer to Hitler’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of Captain America: Civil War), perhaps the most complex and fascinating character in this story. Heck has no real interest in the Jewish “problem” or the issues of the ghetto and beyond. His primary interest is in animals. He’s especially keen to breed two different animals lines in the hopes of bringing back a species from extinction. But he sees a kindred spirit in Antonina, and the two engage in a type of professional flirtation that she allows to walk the line between attraction and mutual admiration for the other’s abilities in order to keep suspicion off her husband who takes garbage trucks in and out of the ghetto, filling them with a handful of people and then covering them with organic waste.
As The Zookeeper’s Wife goes on, we begin to view the cages and other isolated areas of the zoo not as places of confinement but as a means of escape. Since the Jews must remain under the home of the married couple until it is safe to leave, Antonina develops a system whereby playing music on her piano is a sign that they must stay hidden, while another signal means they can come up briefly for air and daylight. The means of deception are clever (dyeing women’s hair blonde and sending them right out the front gate with forged papers, pretending they are a visiting cousin is a particular favorite), and the tension rises with every successful rescue, since we assume at some point, this will all come crumbling down. Caro has always been quite good at allowing her characters a breadth of emotional expression, and it may surprise some that it’s the men in this story who seem to emote the most.
Despite its frequently gloomy weather and less than picture perfect settings (the film was actually shot in the Czech Republic), The Zookeeper’s Wife has a certain beauty to its look and atmosphere, especially in the exotic nature of the zoo itself. But the movie’s greatest accomplishment is putting faces on selfless deeds and lives snatched from certain death. It reminds us that not all acts of courage have to be grand in nature; they just have to be effective and get to the heart of the crisis at hand. This couple had no idea what fate was in store for the Jews they rescued; they simply understood that a great injustice was under way and sought to help in any way they could. Chastain does her best not to portray Antonina as a saint. Instead, she recognizes that animals under care are being treated better than the people in the ghetto, and it enrages her.
As you would hope, Caro takes us to the end of this story—the end of the Nazi occupation of Poland—and it’s perhaps the scariest point in the film. If you feel as if your heart has had enough of films set during the Holocaust, let this one in. It has an unusual and much-needed sense of hope running through the fear, and the performances are exceptional in every way. The Zookeeper’s Wife manages not to cross the line into overwhelming sentimentality, but the importance of the story being told is quite evident. This is one of the good ones, and you should see it, if only as a reminder that Jessica Chastain makes all things a little bit better.