“You look in their eyes and know exactly what’s in their hearts.”
While Hollywood will likely never satisfy its appetite for telling WWII tales of atrocity and heroism, The Zookeeper’s Wife proposes something slightly different, inserting itself somewhere in the middle, yet managing to feel refreshing instead of overdone. Shying away from the violence and intensity that tends to dominate the pseudo-genre, director Niki Caro (McFarland, USA) instead opted to shine a light on the little known story of a woman who found empathy in the darkest, most difficult of times. What The Zookeeper’s Wife lacks in urgency, it makes up for in a polished, yet moving portrait of a heroine whose selflessness is the guiding force of the story.
The film opens with a picturesque view of the Warsaw Zoo, where the Zabinski family live and serve as caretakers of their modest, yet gorgeous population of animals. While it’s her husband Jan (Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh) who has the PhD, it is Antonina (Jessica Chastain) that serves as the heart and soul of the entire operation. From elephants, camels, to lion cubs, her bond with the assortment of animals is clearly portrayed as unique; they respond to her voice and touch like a friend they trust, an exception among humans. Their existence is simple and idyllic as the zoo serves as a sanctuary to animals, and an escape for their visitors. As they bask in the literal warm glow of better, pre-invasion days, the impending doom of the war lurks just around the corner like an unwelcome shadow.
Soon enough, chaos ensues. As Germany takes over Poland, bombs fall upon the Zabinskis’ zoo, violently piercing through their formerly tranquil reality. The zoo is in shambles with the few surviving animals on the loose, both homeless and helpless in the midst of the chaos. Just in time, Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) comes to the rescue with an offer to provide aid for the animals that were left behind. He proposes to ship them off to Germany as the war wages on, all while exploiting them to breed genetically fine-tuned species. With no animals left to care for, the Zabinkis respond with a proposal of their own, offering to temporarily use their zoo as a pig farm to feed Heck’s soldiers.
The invasion becomes deeply personal for the Zabinskis as their Jewish friends are suddenly forced out of their homes and into specifically isolated areas, treated like unwanted animals. As Jan drives into the ghettos to collect trash to feed their pigs with, he smuggles friends and strangers alike into his garbage truck and to their home, caring for them like wounded animals and providing them with the kindness and aid the world refuses them anymore. Slowly but surely, urged by the purity of their compassion, the Zabinskis turn their property into a refuge, all right under Heck’s nose.
What makes The Zookeeper’s Wife unique in its genre is precisely what makes it so special, as Caro chooses to celebrate a breathtaking sense of humanity at the core of an utterly senseless war. As Antonina, Chastain delivers yet another chameleon-like performance, captivating in every frame as she constantly outshines everybody else with that all-too-familiar effortlessness. In her hands, Antonina is deeply, gorgeously nuanced; the subtleties of her character only speak volumes to her incredible force. She reminds us that this film it not about war, not exactly, but instead about how even in the most arduous of times, goodness can — and does — prevail.
After all, in times of great divisiveness, perhaps mirroring what we’re living in today, it can be too easy to get lost in the noise of it all. And when push comes to shove, it can be difficult to care or even think of those outside of ourselves, on the opposite end of our perceptions and beliefs. Even more unimaginable, then, is the thought of actually risking yourself for others in the push and pull between life and death. Perhaps it’s exactly why despite being set in 1939 Poland, films like The Zookeeper’s Wife feel more timely and appropriate than ever, serving as reminders that despite our differences, our humanity is what should tie us together.