DIRECTOR Niki Caro’s dramatic film The Zookeeper’s Wife is a notable movie about Jewish survival, but is not a film about Jews. Based on a true story of a non-Jewish Polish married couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo at the start of World War II, it is the latest film that tells the story of Righteous Gentiles in the tradition of Schindler’s List and Irena Sendler.
The film opens in the summer of 1939 when the Warsaw Zoo appears like a Garden of Eden, with animals running after their almost-rapturous keepers, Antonina Zabinski (played by Jessica Chastain who starred in Zero Dark Thirty and Interstellar) and Jan Zabinski (played by Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh), accompanied by their contemplative young son Ryszard.
The Zabinskis love their animals, and New Zealand director Caro does an extraordinary job of showing human–zoo animal intimate interactions, such as healing a sick young elephant.
However, the family’s peaceful life is shattered when the Germans attack Poland and bomb Warsaw, decimating the zoo. The narrative is familiar: the Nazi occupation, attacks on the local Jewish population and development of the Warsaw Ghetto.
But what happens next is a first for Holocaust screen stories: Antonina and Jan develop a plan to slip Jews out of the ghetto and hide them in a labyrinth of tunnels and cellars at the zoo, creating an “underground railroad”. The pretext is raising pigs for food by using ghetto garbage.
A sub-plot involves the Nazi director of the Berlin Zoo, Dr Lutz Heck (played by German actor Daniel Bruhl) who is attracted to Antonina. Other notable historical figures appear, including Dr Janusz Korczak, who ran a famous orphanage in the ghetto.
The Zookeeper’s Wife has a convincing production design (shot in Prague), wonderful animals and fine acting from the principals, especially Chastain with her Polish accent. Despite its strong Holocaust and war themes, The Zookeeper’s Wife does feel tame at times. Most violence and killing, including the animals, happens off-screen. This “soft pitch” film-making shouldn’t give nightmares, but does undermine the dramatic impact of what is still a great story, adapted from the book by Diane Ackerman.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is currently screening.