When you hear the name Antonina Zabinski, most of you won’t associate her with anything. I certainly didn’t, but after seeing “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on the book by Diane Ackerman, it’s a name that will elicit hope in humanity. The unassuming Zabinski family was the only hope for many captive Polish Jews during WWII. Starring Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, and Johan Heldenbergh, the film gives light to a little known story about hope in the face of death and destruction.
Antonina (Chastain) is in her element as she cares for her family and her animals. It’s evident that she is less comfortable with people particularly as she is introduced to the Berlin leading animal researcher and zookeeper Lutz Heck (Bruhl). This initial tension is just the beginning of what’s to come. Poland’s geographical position and Jewish population made it a heavy target for invasion by Nazi Germany. The Zabinski’s zoo became a German military camp where the family watched in horror the atrocities of the vile actions against not just people, but animals and children as well. As the bombing begins and many of the Zabinski’s friends are captured, it is Antonina and Jan’s (Heldenbergh) resourcefulness and intuitive nature that balance the dark and disturbing nature of war itself. Rescuing others from the “Ghetto” using deceptive measures and hiding them in underground tunnels and basements using piano playing as a communication device is just a glimpse inside this courage young families endeavors.
I had a chance to talkwith Niki Caro (“The Whale Rider”), the director of this emotional yet factual film. Research into the events was pivotal to bring the viewer into the story. Caro said, “We only looked at documentary evidence…It wasn’t uncommon for me to walk into the office of my colleagues to find people weeping.” She added, “I think a lot of our war stories on film are naturally from the male point of view, but it occurs to me that war happens to women also and it happens to children and it happens to animals.” “The Zookeeper’s Wife” brings all of these issues to the forefront, sometimes disturbingly so, but this is a reality of war, of WWII.
The film captures humanity on every level—from its most exalted to its most inhumane. As the family attempts to rescue more and more Jews held captive in the “Ghetto,” they put themselves in more and more danger. The anxiety this creates is unnerving, yet it gives you hope that people in dire circumstances can do the right thing. Antonina’s willingness to sacrifice so much, particularly when interacting with Heck, is pivotal in demonstrating her courage.
When I asked Caro about some of the more disturbing scenes, she had this to say, “Ursula, the rape of the child, you never see it…You see the damage done to that child so that she is rendered non-human…[Antonina] uses her instincts to protect her and bring her back into the human race.” Caro passionately added, “Jessica [Chastain] and I are both extremely troubled by rape scenes in films. No part of me wants to be gratuitous about this. Therefore, this is something you never see in this movie, but you see the damage and then you see the healing.”
While there is the horror of war, there is also beauty and cinematically, this film captures every scene beautifully. We feel the bombing, we feel the love of life; both of humans and animals. It’s truly a visually striking film, eliciting exactly the emotional reactions necessary to tell a complete story. While the story seems to lag in some parts, the ability to connect you each of the characters is so strong that you feel invested in them, wanting and needing to know how this small yet important story ends.
Chastain is simply sublime in her portrayal of Antonina. Her genuine love of animals is evident from the moment she interacts with a lion cub to caressing an elephant’s trunk to reassure it. Caro stated that there was very little CGI used in this film. She felt that using fake animals “…would not have worked for me and I don’t believe it would work for the film.” In fact, Caro added, “…when you see [Chastain] with an animal, she is with the animal. There is no double for Jessica Chastain…The trust she had in them and they in her, it’s a rare quality and it’s a quality that she shared absolutely with Antonina.”
Johan Heldenbergh’s performance as the sometimes conflicted, but morally bound Jan is equally as powerful as Chastain’s, giving us a realistic picture of Antonina’s husband. And Bruhl’s exquisite performance found the right balance of humanity as this (d)evolved throughout the film. The characters could have easily been over-the-top, but in no instance did this occur. There was a sense of genuineness from all of them, embodying each character and bringing this little-known story to life.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is an extraordinary story told with exceptional sensitivity and care. WWII and war itself is seen from an unusual perspective creating a beautiful sense of the importance of humanity. In making this film, Caro said, “I don’t know that I will ever be quite the same which is a small gesture in the scheme of things. The intention was so much to honor those millions who died in the holocaust by celebrating the hundreds that survived and the extraordinary work of Antonina and her husband…People exist who would not have exited. Children were born who would never have been born.” And at the core of this film is its message—the healing and the humanity that remain.
To read the interview in its entirety go to FF2 Media