Anymore, it is very rare that I come across a piece of work that punches me in the chest and stays with me for days. I’ll admit that the recent live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast did do this to me in a similar way. But it stayed with me more out of nostalgic love rather than out of a unique combination of wonderment and anguish.
I’ve never been in a theater that was as quiet as the one in which I saw The Zookeeper’s Wife. The film, directed by up-and-comer Niki Caro, documents the story of a polish couple who used their zoo as a hiding place for over 300 Jewish people during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Even this simple summary gut-punches me. As I have mentioned before, I have a (probably) unhealthy interest in learning about terrible happenings such as the Holocaust. When I was growing up, I read nearly everything I could get my hands on about this horrible time in our world’s history — I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated by humans’ abilities to feel and do such things to one another. Beneath it all, I was simply trying to understand why. And I still am. We may never truly understand what kind of psychological underpinnings came undone and triggered one of the largest genocides in modern history. So, in the meantime, I take refuge in the stories of people who put their humility and humanity to good use in the face of pure evil.
Based on the book of the same name, The Zookeeper’s Wife documents the evolution of german occupation in Warsaw, Poland, with the simple identification of Jews, to the implementation of ghettos, and finally to the evacuation of surviving Jewish families to concentration camps. After their zoo is bombed and many of their animals are dead, Jan and Antonina Zabinski are faced with the harsh realities of the Nazi’s treatment of Jews. As they watch their friends being taken to ghettos where they are deprived of food and adequate shelter, they decide to step in. Using a pig farm as their cover under German surveillance, the couple sneak several people out of the ghetto and into their basement cages until safe houses can be found for them.
The story is told mainly from Antonina’s perspective — a loyal, loving and compassionate woman who often joins her husband in shoveling hay, feeding the animals, and even delivering a baby elephant. She is always calm and collected in the face of imminent danger, although her fragility shows through when her family, both by blood and friendships, are threatened. Jessica Chastain portrays a woman who is sure of her inherent duty to protect life, but struggles with the lengths she must go to for the means to justify the ends. Around men, she adopts a retiring, mouse-like demeanor, but when she is by herself, or spending time with her “guests,” the resilience and confidence in her heart shine through, showing us that, while many underestimate her, she knows exactly how to manipulate them into her thinking.
The casting for this film was absolutely phenomenal. Johan Heldenbergh provided a quiet, contemplative and compassionate voice of reason to counter Daniel Bruhl’s vindictive, hungry Nazi officer. Another stand-out was Shira Haas, who plays a young Jewish girl that is raped by Nazi officers in the ghetto. At the last minute, Jan decides to smuggle her back to the zoo, where she slowly learns to trust in her saviors. Haas was phenomenal in portraying that sense of shock, distrust and fear that seizes those who have experienced such personal trauma.
It is odd to say that a film about the Holocaust is beautiful, but this one is. From the beginning, in the hey-day of the Warsaw Zoo, we see gorgeous shots of Antonina waking, opening the zoo and riding her bike by all of the exotic animals on a clear spring day. Later, even the tense shots of evacuations and visits from Nazi officers have a haunting beauty to them. The entire film is immersed in this dry, atmospheric haze that is only heightened by Chastain’s red hair, Heldenbergh’s pressed suits, and the vibrancy of villainy that follows the officers and their prey.
In my opinion, Niki Caro is one of the greatest emerging directors of our time. Her treatment of such an important subject is delicate and humble. She does not glaze over the realities of the occupation, but rather brings as many of them as she can front and center for audience consideration. While there are several instances of camaraderie shown between the Zabinskis and their guests, she does not use them to distract from the reality — with every happy moment, there is a frightening check to balance it. I have read several reviews that seem to think the film put more weight on the lives of the animals than it did on those in hiding. I respectfully disagree. While the death of the animals was one of the things that got to me in a bad way, I feel that not only was the treatment of the animals necessary to reveal Antonina’s personality, but it was also a useful foreshadowing metaphor. As Antonina’s loss and compassion shifted from the lost animals to the found humans, so did ours.
In the end, I think the true test of any great film is whether or not we would see it again in the movie theater. For many, this movie may be too much to see again. For me, that is true. But I would still return to the theater to watch this film again, not for enjoyment, but simply for another opportunity to experience a complicated, nuanced, beautiful work of film.
What did you think of The Zookeeper’s Wife? How do you think the film measures up against other films surrounding the Holocaust? What do you think of Niki Caro’s treatment of the animals versus the Jewish refugees? Do you think it is important to tell these stories through film? Why or why not? Let’s talk.