This film review of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 4 May 2017
Directed by Niki Caro; written by Angela Workman, based on the book by Diane Ackerman; starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl and Michael McElhatton
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a notable film about Jewish survival, but is not a film about Jews. Based on a true story of a non-Jewish Polish married couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo at the outbreak of the Second World War, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” – adapted from the book by Diane Ackerman – is one of a growing number of dramatic films that tell the stories of Righteous Gentiles (think “Schindler’s List” and “Irena Sendler”).
The film opens in summer of 1939; an idyllic “Belle Epoque” Warsaw Zoo appears like a Garden of Eden, with strange animals running after their almost-rapturous keepers, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty” & “Interstellar”) and Jan Zabinski (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh), accompanied by their contemplative young son Ryszard. The Zabinskis love their animals, and New Zealand director Niki Caro does an extraordinary job of showing human-zoo animal intimate interactions, such as healing a sick young elephant (if it was special effects, I couldn’t tell).
The peaceful retreat doesn’t last. When the Germans attack Poland and bomb Warsaw, the zoo is decimated and lives are changed forever. The narrative is familiar: the Nazi occupation, attacks on the local Jewish population and development of the Warsaw Ghetto.
But what happens next is a first for Holocaust screen stories: Antonina and Jan grow a plan to slip Jews out of the ghetto and hide them in a labyrinth of tunnels and cellars at the zoo, creating an “underground railroad”. The pretext is raising pigs (the “treif” juxtaposition is not explored) for food by using ghetto garbage. A sub-plot involves the Nazi Director of the Berlin Zoo, Dr Lutz Heck (German actor Daniel Bruhl) attracted to Antonina. Other notable historical figures appear, including Dr Janusz Korczak, who ran a famous orphanage in the ghetto.
The film has a convincing production design (shot in Prague), fabulous animals and strong acting from the principals, especially Chastain, who rivals Meryl Streep (“Sophie’s Choice”) with her Polish accent. Despite its strong Holocaust and war themes, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” does feel tame at times; it’s rated “M” (“not recommended for children under 15”). Most violence and killing, including the animals, happens off-screen. This “soft pitch” film-making shouldn’t give nightmares, but does undermine the dramatic impact of what is still a great story.