Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, 'The Zookeeper's Wife' recounts the true story of the husband-and-wife couple, Jan and Antonina Żabiński, who secretly sheltered Jews during the German invasion of Poland from 1939 to 1945 on their premises of the Warsaw Zoo, thus enabling these Polish Jews to escape from the infamous Warsaw Ghetto and the eventual extermination of the place as well as its inhabitants within.
At its heart, this is a celebration of ordinary heroes – that is, of ordinary men and women who have displayed extraordinary heroism during extraordinary times. Such tales are often told with sycophantic adulation, which runs counter to the nature of their character/s and ultimately leaves one feeling patronized. Thankfully, its director Niki Caro knows her way around such celebrations of heroism (as evinced by her previous works like 'Whale Rider', 'North Country' and 'McFarland, USA'), placing emphasis on the difficult circumstances of the war in order to demonstrate the Żabińskis' bravery rather than on exalting the characters per se. Scenes of life pre- and post-invasion, of life behind the ghettos and of the nail-biting process of sneaking the Jews out of the ghettos are played out with attention to detail and realism, just so the context under which the Żabińskis were living under as well as the danger they were putting themselves and their only son Ryszard under are felt keenly and profoundly – hence illuminating the spirit of valour and self-sacrifice their deeds exemplified.
Those who have read Diane Ackerman's source novel will probably know that her narration is as much about Jan and Antonina Żabiński as it is about Lutz Heck, the duplicitous head of the Berlin Zoo whom the Żabińskis first meet before the war and who eventually turns out to be one of the prominent figures of the German war office in Poland. Like in the book, Lutz aimed to recreate pureblood versions of certain extinct species; and for dramatic impact, instead of transporting some of the cattle from the Warsaw Zoo to run his animal eugenics programme back in Berlin, Lutz (as played by Daniel Bruhl) does so right on the grounds of the former. That deviation allows screenwriter Angela Workman to fashion a rather unnecessary subplot between Antonina and Lutz, which sees Lutz develop a personal liking for Antonina and concomitantly engendering marital tension between Jan and Antonina. As distracting as that may be, it is consoling that neither Lutz nor the Germans in particular are demonized; in fact, the former's on screen representation shows an unexpectedly benevolent side at the end that may in fact be kinder than his real-life person.
In turn, the horrors of the Holocaust are depicted through a fictional character which Caro has said was her idea. Played by Israeli actress Shira Haas, Urszula is a barely teenage girl whom Jan encounters on his maiden trip into the ghetto bleeding and shaken after being raped by two German male soldiers. Against better judgment, Jan conceals her right under the driver's seat of his truck (under his son's feet, no less) in order to help her escape from any further misery. Though manipulative, Urszula's addition is arguably an effective device through which Caro conveys the magnitude of the Żabińskis' rescue efforts – not only is she intended to be emblematic of the suffering and subsequent trauma that the Jewish children no doubt endured during the German invasion, she is the face of the persecuted Jewish, personifying the 'human' in humanity. Her recovery is also representative of the hope that the Żabińskis' act of wartime courage gave to the 300 Jews that they saved in the six years of the German occupation.
As with such historical dramatisations, the strength of the performances determines whether the film itself ends up being compelling – and sure enough, that 'The Zookeeper's Wife' is fascinating to watch from start to finish is testament to the strong cast. However cynical you may be of Jessica Chastain's casting as Antonina which therefore requires the Hollywood actress to put on a Polish accent, she is undeniably captivating as the eponymous lead, channeling grit and vulnerability in equal measure as she fleshes out her character's fears, anxieties and convictions. Her stripped- down performance complements that of Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh, who may not have matinée-idol looks but certainly the gravitas to play a resolute volunteer for the underground Polish resistance. Among the supporting actors, Bruhl and Haas are the standouts, the former exercising admirable restraint in what could have been a traditionally villainous act while the latter surprisingly nuanced in her portrayal of the most visible victim of Nazi sadism.
Many a story has been told of ordinary men and women who have displayed extraordinary heroism during the Holocaust, and 'The Zookeeper's Wife' stands out among one of the better ones by simply telling its story well without embellishment or worse exaggeration. Even better, it underscores the emotional devastation of war without violence or gore; rather, with emphasis on authenticity, the film lays bare the communities torn apart when the Germans invaded, the sheer hopelessness of those who were oppressed, and the sacrifices that one must sometimes make in order to achieve a loftier, nobler purpose during such challenging times. Especially when some world leaders seem to have forgotten the importance of world peace, this is as apt a reminder as any that the cost of war is immeasurable, immutable and perhaps even irreversible.
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