The prospect of a new film about the Holocaust is a reliable generator of groans among audiences. The earliest attempts to portray Nazi atrocities were impotent documents that pandered to the sensibilities of those who had been shielded from the horrors of WWII. After Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," the Holocaust films that followed tried to adopt its brutality, leading to an endless parade of sorrows and inhumanity. It is onto that fraught terrain that "The Zookeeper's Wife" tentatively treads. For the most part, it maintains a steady footing.
"The Zookeeper's Wife" is directed by Niki Caro, a filmmaker from New Zealand who first gained fame with "Whale Rider" in 2002, before moving on to make movies in the U.S. Her current film was based on the nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman, which was originally unfamiliar to Caro. "I had not read 'The Zookeeper's Wife' before I was approached," said Caro in a conference call before the film's release. "In fact, that was part of the attraction to it. Antonia Zabinski's story had kind of fallen through the seams of history and I was amazed when I read the script to learn that it was a true story. As to what drew me, I guess I was really compelled by the idea of a different kind of Holocaust movie."
Jessica Chastain stars as the aforementioned Antonia, who runs a zoo in Warsaw, Poland, with her husband Jan (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh) and their son Ryszard. The Zabinskis live amongst the animals, welcoming them into their house on the zoo grounds. Lion cubs sleep with Ryszard at night, and he keeps a pet skunk around. Antonia always seems to have an adorable bunny in her arms as she goes around caring for the animals. The movie's early minutes delight in the majesty of the creatures—tigers, bison, and elephants all look admirably noble, even though the size and design of their cages would not pass muster in a contemporary zoo.
The film opens in 1939, and within a few months the German blitzkrieg rolls into Warsaw. Bombs rain down on the zoo, killing many of the animals in a heartrending scene that owes more than a little to Emir Kusturica's "Underground" (1995). A bloodied polar bear lies dead in a demolished habitat as detached zebra limbs are dragged into a burial pit by Antonia and Jan.
Into all the chaos arrives Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of "Inglourious Basterds" fame). Heck is the director of the Berlin Zoo. Once an acquaintance of the Zabinskis, he takes command of the zoo following the occupation (Jan refers to him as "Hitler's zoologist"). Brühl is excellent as the chilly Heck, who adopts a sheen of civility that barely conceals a darker core whenever he visits the zoo. With winter approaching, Heck instructs the German soldiers to shoot the remaining animals, who he claims will not survive the coming months. Perhaps he is right, but Heck callously betrays his own motives when he shoots a bald eagle as it is about to fly away, then commands one of the soldiers to have it stuffed and mounted in his office. Only the smallest creatures that can fit inside the house survive.
After the slaughter of their animals, Antonia becomes more attuned to the atrocities going on outside the zoo's gates. The Jewish people she used to know are being herded into the ghetto, locked away behind barbed wire fences. She convinces Jan to allow one of their friends to stay hidden in the house's basement, then devises a plan to help others—they will raise pigs on the farm, which the Germans can use for food. To feed them, Jan will pick up trash from the ghetto, which will hide escaped Jews. The Zabinskis will keep these guests in the system of tunnels below the house where the animals used to live until smugglers can take them to safety. With this system the real-life Antonia and Jan were able to transport 300 Jews to safety.
Stories like this have been told before, but what makes The Zookeeper's Wife stand out from them is its avoidance of clichéd moments of suffering from the Jews living in hiding or imprisoned in the ghetto. That's not to say that Caro completely avoids it, as death is always around the corner, but she refuses to wallow in their sorrow.
"That was the biggest challenge," said Caro, "portraying it accurately and well in a movie of this nature. I think for me it was portraying it emotionally. And a lot of war movies focus on the horror, but for me, one of the key things was experiencing the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of Jan and his son … When we experience it through his eyes, when he says 'It's worse that I could have possibly imagined,' that is enough."
Those who make blanket dismissals of art depicting the atrocities of the Holocaust, or who think art can never aestheticize violence, often seem to be ignoring art's role in teaching us of civilizations many moments of great inhumanity. It shows us the importance of those events, and encourages us to craft a world in which such things are less likely to happen. But the last few decades have also been filled with far too many Holocaust films that use a genocide as a means of extracting cheap tears. Caro is wise to tighten the focus of her story to a small group of people trying to escape Warsaw.
In addition to the malicious Brühl, Chastain is often compelling, especially when confronted with the loss of her beloved animals and the uncertain futures of the people she tries to help. Others, though, are less distinct: Heldenbergh's character is underwritten, and his relationship to Antonia is poorly developed. Jan joins Polish resistance fighters late in the film, yet it is not clear what has led him to take up arms after resisting in more covert ways for so many years. Part of the problem might be the scope of the film, which goes from 1939 to the war's end in 1945. Seven years is a lot of material to cover in a two hour movie.
Still, "The Zookeeper's" finds a fresh way to tell a story that has been carelessly depicted too many times.
Watch the trailer below:
Reach Staff Reporter Brian Marks here.