The Zookeeper’s Wife; 126 min; Rated PG-13
“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on the 2007 best-selling work of nonfiction by Diane Ackerman, opens with an idyllic series of images. Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) is lounging on a sun-splashed bed with two sleeping lion cubs that she holds and nuzzles. We soon see her opening the gates to a zoo, owned by her and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), welcoming families to enter and enjoy what is the equivalent of a peaceful, self-contained ark, an island of enchantment. Later, she rides her bicycle through the zoo, followed by a young camel, while she happily checks on the animals.
The year is 1939. The city is Warsaw.
But abruptly, Antonina’s life is upended, first with an air raid wherein explosions rock the zoo, killing many animals and telegraphing what is coming next: the German army has rolled into Poland and will occupy not only Warsaw but the zoo as well. The animals must go, she and Jan are told by Hermann Goering’s zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a man who, as it turns out, is a Nazi first and proves to be a danger to Antonina.
Soon the couple learns that all of Warsaw is occupied and the city’s Jews had been rounded up and confined to what became known as the Warsaw Ghetto. Although the Zabinskis are Gentiles and allowed to live within the zoo’s gates, many of their close friends are Jews.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is told from the point of view of Antonina, and it is through her eyes that we see her struggle to comprehend the unnecessary cruelty of the occupiers. There is one scene where soldiers shoot an elephant as well as the young camel, taking great pleasure in the moment.
Of course, Jan is also filled with rage at what the soldiers have done to the zoo where they had housed for years their lovingly-cared-for animals. But in his travels, he is exposed to the remorselessness of the Germans, realizing that what he is witnessing extends far beyond the zoo. He knows evil when he confronts it. There is a scene where he is watching small, trusting children and their terrified parents herded onto railroad cars, headed for concentration camps. It’s heart-rending.
And it is at that moment that the Zabinskis make a life-changing decision. The only regret I felt, as the story unfolded, is that the writers did not use at this point extended exposition, thus allowing the audience to know what Antonina and Jan must surely have discussed at length, with, I’m sure, profound trepidation and was the possible source of high-stakes tension.
Their existential choice was to smuggle Jews from the ghetto, where they were shot and starved with impunity, to the zoo. The journey, while short, under the guise of collecting kitchen garbage for the zoo’s pigs, is harrowing and fraught with danger. Many of the Jews who they rescue are hidden in the basement of their home. Others are quickly trucked out of Poland.
What Jan and Antonina did transcends the word “courageous.” They risked their lives while hiding Jews in what was once a sanctuary for animals and is now used as a completely a different kind of haven. It’s actually a wonderful metaphor. And it’s all accomplished while surrounded by German soldiers.
In the film, this choice occurs quietly, absent any spoken deliberations or hesitation, with a kind of fearful fearlessness. I can only assume that for them it was a crossroads of sorts; history has shown that others did not do what the Zabinskis chose to do. They were, in most respects, ordinary people who did something extraordinary. I yearned to know why.
In 1965, Israel honored them for their courage as “Righteous Ones.” They were two among those few across Europe who stepped forward while so much of the world remained silent.
One last point: “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is, of course, a story about the Holocaust. But the horror that this time represented is touched upon indirectly. While there are scenes from the Warsaw Ghetto that are breathtakingly tragic and ultimately inexplicable, so great is the inhumanity, it was not the intent of director Niki Caro to make a film that illustrated the graphic malevolence brought to bear by the Nazis. Films such as “Night and Fog,” “Shoah,” and “Schindler’s List” do this superbly.
What Caro does is tell a very personal story about small acts of courage that in the aggregate were beyond heroic. It is to her credit that she found the book and enlisted Chastain, who gives a remarkable performance, to help her tell the story.