4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, disturbing images, brief sexuality, nudity and moments of extreme dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.31.17
I marvel at the wealth of previously undisclosed stories that continue to emerge from the Holocaust, particularly with respect to the bravery of ordinary citizens who risked their lives while defying Nazi oppressors.
New Zealand director Niki Caro, whose thoughtful and sensitive films have included The Whale Rider and North Country, has delivered an equally compelling adaptation of poet/naturalist Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction book, The Zookeeper’s Wife. The resulting drama, anchored by Jessica Chastain’s luminescent starring performance, is touching, suspenseful and at times flat-out horrific, revealing yet another layer of atrocities committed in pursuit of Nazi “cleansing” and “species enhancement.”
Ackerman’s book was constructed primarily from the unpublished diary of Antonina Żabińska (played here by Chastain), who with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) directed Poland’s unexpectedly progressive Warsaw Zoo during the years leading up to World War II. Most of the animals were kept not in cages but in habitats resembling their natural environments; numerous critters also wandered among or even lived in the spacious, cheerfully chaotic on-site home with Antonina, Jan and their young son Ryszard (Timothy Radford).
The fascinating complexity of Chastain’s performance is immediately apparent. On the surface Antonina seems vulnerable, slightly withdrawn and oddly fragile: a woman not quite comfortable with the trappings and protocols of so-called refined society. But in the company of the zoo’s wildlife she blossoms into something transcendent: an empathetic “animal whisperer” practically capable of communicating with all the birds and beasts.
We eventually learn the reason for Antonina’s wariness: She’s a Russian-born Pole, and as a child saw her parents killed by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Trust does not come easily, which also explains her greater comfort among animals.
The Żabińska’s social life is lively, varied and bohemian, their circle of friends including artists, professionals and intellectuals, many of them Jewish. The subtle viper in their midst is Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a colleague who visits frequently in his capacity as director of the Berlin Zoo. Even in these early scenes, there’s something predatory about Heck’s gaze, particularly when it lingers on Antonina; it feels as if Brühl’s eyes turn reptilian and beady.
Antonina makes the rounds of the zoo each morning on a bicycle, a young camel trotting alongside enthusiastically. Should a particular critter appear to desire company or need assistance, Antonina will kick off her shoes before entering the habitat barefoot, like some sort of forest-born wild child.
None of this is the slightest bit affected or risible under Caro’s careful guidance, and Angela Workman’s finely tuned script. Nobody here channels the childish fantasy of Doctor Dolittle; if Antonina has any cinematic ancestor, it would be Audrey Hepburn’s mysterious Rima, in the 1959 adaptation of William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions.
Given this idyllic prologue, the sudden crisis — which we anticipate and dread — is the very definition of shocking. The 1939 Nazi invasion begins with a devastating airplane bombardment of Warsaw, which all but destroys the zoo and kills many of the animals; others, roaming the streets in panic, are cornered and destroyed by fearful soldiers.
Caro doesn’t linger on any of this, but nonetheless presents enough to rip at our heartstrings; it’s a brutal sequence, very difficult to watch, and likely to prompt lingering nightmares in sensitive viewers. The subtle worst is yet to come: the reappearance of Heck, now bedecked in Nazi finery as the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist. Trading on his “friendship” with Antonina, he persuades her to let him transport the remnants of their wildlife population to the Berlin Zoo, where they’ll be “safe.”
Knowing that her beloved friends likely would be slaughtered for meat if they remain in Warsaw, she agrees ... much to Jan’s displeasure, who has long mistrusted Heck. The latter’s desire for the Żabińska’s bovine herd is particularly pernicious; he hopes, through selective breeding, to resurrect the centuries-extinct aurochs, extremely powerful bison once common in German forests.
(And there’s a chilling slice of Nazi Aryan ideals that I’d not previously encountered.)
When the Jewish population is rounded up and imprisoned in the notoriously squalid Warsaw Ghetto, practically within shouting distance of the zoo, Jan can remain idle no longer. The terrified Antonina, recalling the Bolsheviks all too well, initially balks at her husband’s dangerously audacious plan. But her compassionate instincts take over when she’s confronted by cruelly mistreated two-legged sufferers who — as with her former four-legged charges — are equally desperate for the balm of kind treatment.
What follows next is nothing short of amazing, for all sorts of reasons.
Some assumptions are easy to make. We wouldn’t be watching a dramatization of Jan and Antonina Żabińska if their efforts had concluded in total tragedy. That said, this is not (yet) a familiar story, and thus we’ve no idea how this may have cost them: the point at which their reliance on Heck’s comparatively protective embrace may dissolve, as the civility demanded by his aristocratic breeding is progressively eradicated by the authoritarian ferocity of his role in the Reich’s “new world order.”
Although Chastain’s incandescent performance anchors the film, she’s well supported on all sides, most particularly by Brühl. His reading of Heck is precise and appropriately condescending, but with a weakness. We can see, from Brühl’s body language, that he considers the Żabińskas his inferiors — even though they’re not Jewish — and yet he’s helpless around Antonina. This isn’t accidental; Chastain, in turn, makes it clear that Antonina is manipulating Heck with the blend of patience and guile that she employs with any wild animal. The resulting dynamic is fascinating.
Heldenbergh gives Jan a gruff exterior that belies his intelligence and training as a renowned scientist, agricultural engineer and zoologist (which, to be sure, had a great deal to do with the Żabińskas being allowed to maintain the remnants of their zoo). And while we’ve no doubt of the grim determination that fuels Jan’s embrace of the underground Polish Resistance, we also grieve at the pain in Heldenbergh’s eyes, as he watches his wife tolerate uncomfortable liberties by Heck.
Israeli actress Shira Haas delivers a powerful and heartbreaking performance as Urszula, a character created for the film, who represents all the orphaned Jewish girls who were abused even more dreadfully, once in the ghetto and subject to the whims of thuggish Nazi soldiers. Caro extracts impressively shaded work from Haas, who turns Urszula into a frightened animal possibly beyond even Antonina’s powers of resurrection.
Efrat Dor is similarly memorable, with her quieter handling of Magdalena (Magda) Gross, an esteemed Polish-Jewish sculptress — and close friend of the Żabińskas — who was famed for her earth-toned animal depictions: artwork inspired by her lengthy visits to the Warsaw Zoo, prior to the Nazi invasion.
Production designer Suzie Davies makes our initial exposure to the Warsaw Zoo a radiant, breathtaking experience, re-creating an animal Shangri-La that would be the envy of many of today’s zoos. The post-bombardment remnants are that much more shattering, for our awareness of the innovative beauty that has been lost. And, needless to say, our visits to the Warsaw Ghetto are similarly distressing for their verisimilitude.
Workman’s script, while reasonably accurate with respect to what we see on the screen, compresses time and details, and takes liberties with the complexities of what the Żabińskas accomplished in six harrowing years. The saga’s foundation and opening acts — up to the construction of the Warsaw Ghetto — are better crafted than the third act, which feels rushed. Jan’s involvement with the Polish Resistance also was much broader, and began far sooner, than this film suggests.
These aren’t crippling issues, but it’s clear that this story could have benefited from long-form miniseries treatment.
Harry Gregson-Williams’ orchestral score is as sensitive, restrained and precise as Caro’s direction: At no point does the music — or film — slide into maudlin sentimentality.
The intent of all concerned clearly was to depict Jan and Antonina Żabińska with the respect that Stephen Spielberg accorded Oskar Schindler, and if The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t quite achieve the unforgettable power of Schindler’s List, it certainly belongs in that classic’s honorable company.