By: Amelia Solomon (Two Beers) –
Niki Caro directed The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on the non-fiction book of the same name, written by Diane Ackerman. Caro has previously directed critically acclaimed films such as Whale Rider and North Country. The screenplay was written by Angela Workman. Interestingly, Caro has been hired to direct an upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan. This opportunity inducts her into an elite club, as she joins the ranks of Kathryn Bigelow, Patty Jenkins, and Ava DuVernay in being one of the few women who’ve been hired to direct a feature with a $100 million budget.
The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story about a husband and wife, Dr. Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) who operate the Warsaw Zoo and hide over 300 Jews there, during the German occupation of Poland during WWII. They use their basement as a temporary hiding place for the persecuted Jews, while they obtain new identification papers for them. What is fascinating is that the Zabinskis carry this out under the watch of the Nazis, who have taken over the zoo as an armory. The Zabinskis develop a plan to turn the zoo into a pig farm and convince Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), Director of the Berlin Zoo turned high-ranking SS Officer, and head of a Nazi breeding program to bring back extinct animals, to let them collect garbage from the Warsaw Ghetto to feed the pigs. Jan is able to rescue children and adults from the Ghetto, hiding them under the garbage.
There have been many films that have centered on the Holocaust, and the devastating extermination of over six million Jews. In 2017, it would be hard to fathom that a viewer would walk into any movie covering this horrific historical blight on human history and not already be aware of what happened. This makes any director’s job more difficult, because it means they need to shed light on a new angle covering the Holocaust. Caro is highly successful, because The Zookeeper’s Wife is the first Holocaust film to focus on a woman’s contribution to active resistance during the Nazi occupation. In that way it is a fresh story, one we haven’t seen before.
Caro highlights the plight of the animals at the Warsaw Zoo in a unique manner. It is unbearable to watch these innocent zoo animals be bombed during German airplane raids, and later be shot, for no other reason but to amuse the SS Officers on New Year’s. Maybe it is the fact that we are so used to seeing human carnage, in the news and on the fictional screen, that seeing the murder of innocent animals feels worse. It is sickening to sit through these scenes. It may also be because animals are more innocent than people.
There has been some critical backlash against this film. It has been described as muted, weak, and a fairy-tale version of real events. These views couldn’t be further from the truth. While watching The Zookeeper’s Wife, I felt every bit of pain and sorrow as I had when I watched the film Schindler’s List. Just because this movie didn’t have an epic battle scene on the beach of Normandy, like Saving Private Ryan, doesn’t mean it was any less effective. In fact, I’d argue the bombing scenes of the zoo and of the city of Warsaw are quite cringe-worthy.
It is also important to highlight that this film was both directed by and written by women. This is the first Holocaust film to have this honor. That alone means it is different from other films we’ve seen on the same topic. But this is a positive thing, not a negative. The film looks into the Holocaust with an empathetic lens, and the sympathy it invokes is masterful. There are two scenes in particular that stood out. The first is the raping of a young pre-teen girl by two Nazi officers. Caro did not show the actual act, but instead showed the change in the girl after the event. She stumbles down the street in shock with blood running down her legs, and it’s gut-wrenching. Maybe the critics who found fault with this film felt that the stronger choice would have been to depict the rape, but in this case seeing the emotional trauma on the character’s face was enough.
The second scene that was especially heartbreaking was when the Nazi’s shut down the Warsaw Ghetto and made all of the Jews board trains. Viewers know where these trains were going and what the passengers’ ultimate fate would be. But the characters in the scene boarding the trains did not. There is a large group of orphan children that needed help getting on the train. They held up their hands, waiting for Dr. Jan Zabinski to pick them up and put them on the train. It is the same maneuver a toddler does when he or she wants their mother to pick them up and love them. Despite wanting to save them, there was nothing Dr. Zabinski could do, so he helped the innocent children onto the train. It is this type of scene that sits with you long after you’ve seen the film.
Jessica Chastain is excellent in her role as Antonina Zabinski. Mastering a Polish and Russian accent, she shines as a lover of animals and savior of human beings. It is quite a departure from the last role I saw her in, Miss Sloane. The characters she plays could not be more different from one another, and it is further proof of her dynamic range.
It is hard to find fault with this film. But like most adaptations, there are some holes. This is a natural result of paring down a novel into a 120 page screenplay. I trust that screenwriter Workman chose the most important elements of the story, but it seemed unfathomable that Jan and Antonina were able to hide so many Jews in their home, right under the noses of the Nazis. It seemed too easy at times, and it may have been a more complicated process than was actually shown on the screen.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a unique perspective on the devastation of WWII, the Holocaust, and the plight of Jews in Warsaw, Poland. It is an important story, because it highlights the contributions of a courageous woman who wasn’t afraid to resist and as a result saved hundreds of lives.
The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: each time you see an animal.
Take a Drink: each time Antonina plays the piano.
Do a Shot: each time a character says, “Hitler’s Kaput.”