DATEWORTHY? YES, BUT….A powerful drama that shows a unique angle on WWII heroics by a woman who risks her life to safeguard Jews from the Nazis on the grounds of a zoo, this movie is stirring and holds your interest but isn’t exactly romantic. If you’re serious-minded, you’ll love it.
It might seem impossible for a movie to find a fresh angle to portray about World War II after countless films about the conflict, but “The Zookeeper’s Wife” manages to do just that. Detailing the remarkable true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, a couple who saved more than 300 Jews from certain Nazi slaughter by hiding them in their residence at the Warsaw Zoo, “Wife” manages to blend high drama, atmospheric tension and strong performances to craft a tale that is both riveting and emotionally dynamic.
The film stars Jessica Chastain as title character Antonina, a young mother living an idyllic life as she helps tend the animals at the zoo alongside her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) while also raising her son Ryszard Their life abruptly changes when the Nazi invasion rains bombs upon the zoo, creating surreal havoc as all manner of exotic animals are set loose upon the surrounding city.
As the forces take over the city, the Nazis plan to use the zoo’s expansive property as a staging and storage area, leaving the Zalinskis frightened and confused about how best to handle the situation. Meanwhile, as the invaders round up the city’s Jews and herd them into the ghettos, a Jewish friend manages to sneak out and beg for shelter.
They agree to hide her in their basement, warning her to only move or make noise at night and establishing a signal system: Antonina will play her piano when the coast is clear as the occupying officers leave their residence each night, and also whenever a Nazi is near. That constant threat is exemplified by the presence of Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the head of the Berlin Zoo who enlists Antonina to help him carry out a bizarre eugenics program aiming to revive extinct German species by blending their DNA with that of cattle brought onto the zoo grounds.
Soon the Zalinskis devise a plan to save as many Jews as possible by starting a pig farm to feed the Nazi troops, with Jan sneaking refugees into his truck under the garbage when he embarks on runs to pick up food waste to feed the swine. They hide them in the basement while devising means to sneak them out of the city, as Lutz adds strain to their marriage by gradually making advances on Antonina that she has to resist carefully in order to prevent from incurring his wrath and endangering the operation.
The dual tensions of saving the otherwise helpless refugees while keeping their personal relationship intact are handled subtle by ever-tightening tension by director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”). Particularly impressive are the ways in which she reveals the anarchy wrought by random animals running through Warsaw after the bombing, and the subtle shifts in how the Jews are treated as they slide inexorably from being forced into ghettos to being trapped on the trains to the concentration camps over the course of a few years.
Although she was Oscar-nominated for her turn as a key player in the assassination of Osama bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Chastain has her most sympathetic and varied role since her 2011 breakthrough in “The Help” here. She provides real heart to the story as she and her equally solid costar Heldenbergh show the emotional impact of war on a very intimate level, while also conveying the strength of true heroism.
There are a couple of downsides to the film, as Bruhl’s Lutz conveys a bit too much smugness in his villainy as the movie progresses and the film’s subtlety at some points might leave some viewers wishing for more direct action. However, this fits a film that strives to achieve its tension through psychological forces more than from the fury of battle.
“Wife” has no foul language. But the subject matter obviously lends itself to some disturbing moments, particularly a scene where the Nazis force two Jewish women to kneel and be executed with shots to the head, which are left implied with quick cuts. There is also a brief but intense foreplay scene in bed with the couple. But these are in the context of marriage, so it shouldn’t be an issue for adult viewers, and the movie shows the power of marriage amid great turmoil.
Blending highly personal drama with the emotional trauma of the Holocaust, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” excels in reminding that there were plenty of everyday human heroes in the Nazi resistance that were as valuable as the contributions of the warriors who ultimately vanquished the threat. As such, it’s a stirring reminder for our troubled times to keep our eyes and hearts open to those who need refuge today.