Movie Review: The Zookeeper's Wife
Last week, I had the opportunity to finally see The Zookeeper’s Wife. This historical drama that’s based on a true story is one that I had been waiting to see. Directed by Niki Caro and starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, and Daniel Bruhl, the film follows Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo during the Nazi occupation of Poland. When some of their Jewish friends are being threatened, they decide to hide one person in their home. However, as the Jewish population continues to be corralled and placed in the harsh conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto, they realize they can save more than one life and risk everything by smuggling people out of the ghetto and into safety.
Seeing as this is based on a true story and fairly accurate in many instances, I found the story to be compelling. I’m always intrigued by a story that takes place during World War II, and this was no different. It’s moving to see people risk so much and be a light in some of the darkest moments of history, and that is exactly what the real Jan and Antonina Zabinski did. Both Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh, who portrayed the Zabinskis, gave wonderful performances and captured the tension of this time well. Through them, I felt the danger that came with every checkpoint and every encounter with a German soldier. I also thought that Daniel Bruhl, who portrayed Hitler’s chief zoologist, played his part well and gave a face to the Nazi regime and mindset.
It was somewhat strange to see so many cute animals in a time when so much hatred and destruction was taking place. It felt conflicting to “ooh” and “ahh” over a baby rabbit whenever people are being abused and killed. However, I thought Caro and the others used the animals well to highlight just how quick the Nazis were to overlook the value of any life. They used the mistreatment and death of the animals to show that they did not care for the most innocent and unprotected; they killed animals and people alike without a moment’s hesitation.
There’s a quiet tension that remains throughout the entire movie, and even though I knew a little about the lives of the Zabinskis and the role they played in the Polish Resistance movement, I still found myself holding my breath and hoping that Jan would not get caught as he ushered people out of the ghetto. My main complaint with the film is that toward the end the timeline becomes a little disjunct. I know they needed to end the movie with the German forces being defeated, but so much of the movie focuses on 1939-1941 that it was awkward to jump forward in time to gain a resolution.
Despite a few shortcomings, this is still a story worth telling, and it is still a story worth seeing. The Zabinskis went on to save over 300 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, and all but two of the people they rescued found safe places to live out the remainder of the war. At the end of the day, this is a story that highlights the brutal nature of the Nazis and the great lengths that people took to stand up against them. It’s a story about not sitting aside as evil occurs and being willing to put yourself at risk in order to save others. It’s a story of sacrifice and, strangely, of hope in a time when that seemed to be nonexistent.