I rolled my eyes the first time I saw the trailer for Zookeeper’s Wife. Jessica Chastain in a fact-based WWII movie about a female Oscar Schindler? Ugh. Talk about Oscar bait. And exactly how many WWII movies does the world need?
I was partially driven to such a response because the first time I saw the trailer was late last year when it came attached to another Jessica Chastain Oscar hopeful, the criminally overlooked gun control drama Miss Sloane. But, also, I’m just cynical like that.
What a difference a couple of months can make. The Oscar season is far behind us, meaning Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t have to be judged on whether or not it should win any awards. Plus, the sad need to re-learn the lessons of WWII seems all the more pressing since nearly the entire western world is currently caught in a toxic wave of xenophobic nationalism. So, gather around to hear the tale of what two brave people in Poland did when the whole world went crazy and started treating a certain subset of the human population like animals. Perhaps you’ll walk away from the story feeling better about the power of the human spirit, even if plenty of Neo-nazis and holocaust deniers are still walking the Earth preaching ignorance and hate.
The facts are these: Prior to WWII, Jan and Antonina Zabinski oversaw the Warsaw Zoo in Poland, one of the biggest zoos in Europe at the time. When Germany seized Poland, the Warsaw Zoo was greatly damaged in the bombing raids. The animals which survived were either claimed by Hitler’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck for genetic breeding purposes, transported back to German zoos or outright killed for sport and/or meat for the soldiers. This callous treatment of the animals was a preview of what was to come for the city’s Jews. With their livelihood ruined and moral outrage probably stoked, Jan and Antonina turned the Zoo into a pig farm as a cover for what they were really up to: hiding and transporting Jews out of the city.
We see all of this in the film in a lushly photographed, impeccably acted, but remarkably straightforward fashion, with Johan Heldenbergh, Chastain and Daniel Bruhl playing Jan, Antonina and Heck respectively. The primary tension is whether or not they will get caught, particularly as Heck continues sniffing around, having fallen in love with a secretly repulsed Antonina and using the Zoo as a staging ground for his breeding experiments. Just how evil will this Nazi zoologist turn out to be? Is there any possible way Jan, Antonina and their two children can all survive the ordeal? To say anything further would be spoiling the tense, cinematic joy of the film, even though the answer is a part of the historical record and thus easily Google-able.
In director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman’s hands (as well as the hands of the female producers, production designer, camera operator, etc.), the story has much in common with other Hollywood WWII dramas, such as the oddness of hearing English dialogue delivered in Polish and German accents. However, this is a WWII movie from the point of view of animal-loving folk who, by a happenstance of geography, got the world’s first look at the Nazi’s cruelty and met it head-on with cunningness and steady compassion. It’s a story which deserved to be told, and Caro and her largely female crew bring a beauty, emotional honesty and immediacy to the film which makes it all the more engaging, causing even a cynic like me to occasionally well up, especially when Chastain displays heart-breaking compassion for a painfully young, understandably traumatized rape victim.
Of course, I wanted to be more cynical about it or at least more critical. Surely the zoo animals=Jews metaphor is too heavy-handed. It is awfully jarring when Antonina’s son changes into a completely different actor without warning as the years progress and he gets older. But every time I would open the door to cynicism something would happen in the film to close that door, often putting me on the edge of my seat as I wondered if this was going to be the moment they finally got caught.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Unquestionably, the Zabinskis’ life story deserved to be told, and any film doing so could have easily coasted by on the impressiveness of the true history. However, Zookeeper’s Wife tells what is ultimately a simple historical tale in a truly beautiful way. Oscar bait or not, movies like this will continue to be made for as long as the world needs to be reminded of the way WWII brought out both the best and worst in humanity.