Director Niki Cairo has brought us such inspiring tales of female endurance as Whale Rider> and North Country. And ahead of helming the live-action Mulan, she’s gifted us another story glorious and poignant, The Zookeeper’s Wife.
Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski, a Russian woman who devotes her life and very big heart to the care of her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), their young son, and their wonderful zoo in 1939 Warsaw. At the film’s start, Antonina’s life is idyllic. Her happy home is within the zoo’s walls. And each morning she arises with the sun, slips into a cheerful and flattering sundress, then rides about the park on a jaunty bicycle, greeting the wild animals she cares for, all the while tailed by a giddily galloping baby camel. Her life seems like the first act of a Wes Anderson movie, alive with color, quirk, and whimsy, (but minus the crippling neuroses).
With a perky bob of strawberry blonde curls, Chastain is ever-radiant in the eponymous role. And Caro takes every opportunity to capture her effortlessly elegant leading lady stroking and snuggling her animal charges. She nuzzles elephants, nestles zebras, and whispers to the napping lion cubs who share a bed with her onscreen son. And all of these textured pleasures are contagious and intoxicating. Then, in storms Inglorious Basterds’ Daniel Brühl with his German accent and his penetrating stare, and you just know he’s going to be a Nazi, and he’s going to ruin everything.
Based on incredible and true events, The Zookeeper’s Wife reveals how the Zabinski family used their zoo as a stop on an underground railroad that ushered Jews out of German-occupied Poland, and to safety beyond Hitler’s hateful reach. Over the course of World War II, Antonina and Jan repeatedly put their home, their business, their lives, and their son at risk in service to rescuing friends and strangers from Nazi death camps. While he spirited Jews out of the ghetto, she cared for them and kept them hidden from patrolling Nazi soldiers, by using the underground tunnels that once allowed these zookeepers to transport animals about their grounds. And it’s she who must endure the unwanted advances of Brühl’s handsy Nazi zoologist, who won’t stop at stealing their prize stock and their land, but also pushes for possession of Antonina. Watching her hide her revulsion so she might survive another day is harrowing. But her resilience—as well as that of the Jewish men, women, and children who cross through their secret corridors—is deeply inspiring.
The Zookeeper’s Wife centers on a family who lost much because of the Nazis, yet still maintained more privilege than their Jewish neighbors. And so, the Zabinskis employed that very privilege to undermine the vicious bigots that sought to overrun their world. Fittingly, it’s a film that not only hints at the abject evil mankind is capable of, but also the deep compassion and selflessness that survives, even in the face of such world-rattling malevolence.
Thankfully, Caro spares audiences the graphic horrors of the holocaust. Instead, she suggests its cruelty by the blood running down the bare thigh of a school girl limping out of an alley where two Nazi soldier chuckle coldly. She cuts deep with a sequence where an overwhelmed Jan watches helpless as a line of Jewish children is directed to board a train car. Unspoken is where they’re headed. But their luggage—chucked into a thoughtless pile by the stone-faced Nazis—tells us all we need to know.
Yet, these foreboding scenes of pain and horror are balanced by humble scenes of hospitality, where the Zabinskis nightly invite their hidden guests up into the main floors of their home, once the Nazi patrols have turned in for the night. Here, in this safe space, it’s almost as if the world outside isn’t falling apart. And it reminds all in the room what they are fighting for, however they can.
Though the pacing bumbles from the second act to the third, with births, deaths, and years slipping by in a clumsy tumble, The Zookeeper’s Wife is kept rolling by remarkable performances all around. Chastain is splendid, as expected, shining with strength, grace and tenderness, which makes her occasional breakdowns into tears and fears rawly rattling. With a sneer-smile, Brühl is toxic masculinity personified, turning Antonina’s body into a battlefield, grasping at her hands, her face, her thighs at the least opportunity. And young Shira Haas is riveting as a rape-surviving orphan who finds a new home, comfort, and renewed hope within this rebellious zoo. Early on, her performance is mostly mute, but nonetheless deeply poignant. Between she and Chastain, the film builds out a rich story about female resistance and resilience.
With all the terrible things in the news—including horrifying headlines about neo-Nazis and their terrorist acts—I can understand where a movie about the holocaust might not be something you would seek out right now. However, just as Antonina refused to let her life and legacy be defined by a bunch of grotesque bigots, so too does this World War II drama refuse to be defined by the Nazi’s horrors. They are the problem, not the protagonist.
Ultimately, this is a story of rebellion, resistance, and hope. Through painting a story that boasts both dizzying moments of drama and heart-soaring scenes of humanity and self-sacrificing heroism, Caro delivers not just a history lesson, but also a rallying cry. She gives us not only a gorgeous woman whose pre-WWII life feels like a sun-soaked daydream, but also a weapon-free warrior, who used her warmth and wits to fight back against hatred, violence, and Nazi fuckheads.
Trust me, when the end titles reveal the final fate of the Zabinskis, their Jewish guests and their zoo, you’ll be crying, but tears of joy.