Chastain’s Antonina Shows Courage of a Lion and Gentleness of a Lamb in “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Title:  The Zookeeper’s Wife
Directed by: Niki Caro
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl
Release Date: April 7, 2017
Reviewed by: Susan Tolleson
Rating: PG-13
FA Scorecard: B

The opening scenes of The Zookeeper’s Wife might lead viewers to believe they’re about to see a beautiful tale of the relationship between animals and Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain), who – along with her zoologist husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) – run the Warsaw Zoo in Poland in the 1930s. But as quickly as that idyllic scene of Antonina riding her bike through the zoo and talking to the animals occurs, the film’s mood turns dark, and we sense a change is on the horizon.

It is 1939 when the Żabińskas host a dinner party for those in the zoological world. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), director of the Berlin and Munich zoos, describes to the guests his tracking and shooting of a wild lion. While Antonina is shocked by his callousness – especially for a man charged with caring for and protecting species – the movie has only touched the tip of the icy coldness of this ambitious and deceptive man. Jan, who is also a resistance fighter, warns Antonina things are about to happen and pleads with her to leave Poland with their son, but she protests, so he gives in and allows them to stay. Shortly after, the German bombs decimate Warsaw, and the Nazis are in power.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is director Niki Caro’s adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book by the same name. The story and movie tell how the zookeeper couple used their facility to save more than 300 Jews from Warsaw’s ghetto over seven years of German Occupation. During that time, Antonina kept a diary in which she described how they saved and cared for the Jews using the empty buildings as hiding places right under the noses of the Nazis, who also used the zoo as an armory.

As the film shifts to the damage inflicted on the zoo by the bombing, viewers see many of the animals were killed or injured, and others that survived were then shot by the Nazis as they took over the zoo. Although those uncomfortable scenes are more implied, they are a foreshadowing of even greater atrocities to come.

One of the techniques the director uses is not to show, graphically, the violence inflicted by the Nazis. In case audiences have become so conditioned to consuming violence that they can no longer empathize with victims, Caro refrains from showing the act of violence, but instead, hints at it through foreshadowing or showing the aftermath. In many ways, this is even more powerful storytelling that re-awakens a viewer’s outrage and disgust. One of the most moving scenes in the film takes place as the Nazis are evacuating the Jews from the ghetto and loading them onto cattle cars to be transported to their death at the Treblinka Concentration Camp. As Jan tries to talk one of the Jews – a scientist, author and teacher — into coming with him, children hold their outstretched arms to Jan to be lifted up and put on the railroad car. The obedience to do what they’re told with such extreme innocence as to where they’re going almost chokes the breath out of you.

Another scene, which is not terribly explicit but is difficult to watch, hints at the rape of a young girl just finished by two Nazis. In some ways, with Holocaust movies, viewers have become almost numb to the human tragedies inflicted by these monsters because of the incomprehensible and overwhelming numbers. On the other hand, by showing the violence inflicted on one individual – not just groups of people – the director brings home a powerful reminder that all of these things were NOT done to a group, but to individual people with souls and lives and futures.

A word of caution. I had considered taking my almost 14-year-old daughter to see this film, but even though it’s not incredibly graphic, the promotions for the film may make it seem more benign than it really is. There are still many shocking scenes (including tourists taking photos of themselves outside the ghetto gates while people visibly suffer behind them), lots of suspense about what’s coming, scenes of cruelty and despair (more than 40,000 starved or froze to the death before the ghetto was evacuated), and hints of violence, rape and assault. The Żabińskis are shown in bed together several times, and there is the flash of her nipple as she turns over in one scene. I would say older, less sensitive teens could handle the content, but would strongly encourage conversation and processing with them after the film.

Knowing all of this and how the story ends – at least for the Jewish people – why would anyone want to see this film? There are a couple of positive reasons.

First, this film clearly portrays a virtue mostly missing from today’s culture – that of sacrificing yourself for another human being. As a culture, we are so worried about our own rights and preserving ourselves that we have little time or desire to even acknowledge that others might share the earth with us. But wait – don’t you see the protests, marches and petitions signed almost daily about some outrageous event or words?! Hear me out on this one … While all of those are well and good, they are not the same as laying your life down for someone. The Żabińskis literally risked their lives – and the lives of their son and daughter – to save more than 300 people. Although they knew a couple of them, most were complete strangers. And they did this because it was the right thing to do. At any moment, the Nazis posted outside their window could have broken down their door, found the Jews hiding in the cellar and shot all of them on the spot. In one scene, as they contemplate the extreme danger of what they’re doing, Antonina says, “Bring more, Jan. Bring as many as you can.”

And even if their lives weren’t in danger, they have agreed Antonina would sacrifice the sanctity of their marriage – if necessary – to save all of them. The zoologist Heck, who has quickly moved through the Nazi ranks, is now a powerful evil man consumed with lust for Antonina. They decide they must stay on his good side to keep him from discovering their secret. Although it appears his complete desire is never granted, he does attack her in one scene. From what I’ve read, Antonina’s willingness to sacrifice herself in this way is based on entries in her diary.

Another reason to see this film is to remind us what true evil looks like. Please read this with an open heart and mind. It’s easy to throw around words like “Hitleresque,” but perhaps we need to be reminded of what actually happened in Europe between 1939 and 1946. Perhaps we need a jolt of reality as to the scope of evil that overtook an entire continent and obliterated in the most inhumane and gruesome ways possible, an entire people group (and many others). It is greatly disrespectful to belittle that horrific time by throwing words around casually. I’ve been to Dachau Concentration Camp. I’ve smelled the stench of burned flesh in the oven rooms 50 years after the camp was evacuated. I’ve seen the black and white photos at memorials in Germany that show the pile of what’s left of sick and starved humans bulldozed into trenches like they’re no more than sticks of wood. And I’ve seen the piles of glasses, shoes, toys and suitcases ripped from people who were shoved into tiled rooms and thought they were about to be cleaned after months with no running water. That’s pure, satanic evil. Please think about that. Yes, by all means, speak out about what you perceive as injustice, but choose your words carefully and with honor to those who have gone before.

And finally, another reason to see this film that ends on a note of hope is the stunning performance by Jessica Chastain. Not only is she beautiful to watch throughout the film, but her portrayal of a character consumed by compassion, first for animals, and then by humans, is lovely and encouraging. It’s also a rare occasion that a Holocaust film highlights a woman as the savior.

In the end, this is another movie about the human spirit overcoming extreme trials and showing love one for another. It’s a piece of history not frequently shared before, and it’s a call to action to make sure we aren’t sitting by when we are prompted to do what’s right for someone else.

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