“The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Emotionally satisfying and beautifully acted, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” brings an idealized story of the Zabinski family to the big screen. Jessica Chastain does some of her best work as the pretty Polish animal lover, who along with her husband’s resistance fighting and know-how is able to save some 300 lives just blocks from the Warsaw ghetto.

Based on the Diane Ackerman book published in 2007,  the film keeps the same title; and, New Zealand director Niki Caro ( Whale Rider 2007 ) brings the same passion to the screen. Jan Zabinski ( Johan Heldenbergh )and his wife Antonina  ( Chastain) must keep the Nazis at bay by acting normally. They socialize at parties with zoo directors from  German cities. They raise their young son and decide to shelter a few close Jewish friends in their home-like villa. Jan realizes that the best way to hide Polish Jews  is right under Nazis noses. He devises a plan to raise pigs outside of the zoo’s enclosures, which have now been taken over by the Germans as an armory.  Later, he uses a truck to gather vegetable peelings from town kitchens, and slyly covers as many Nazi victims  as he can with the porcine fodder.

The German zoologist at the Berlin zoo ( Daniel Bruhl ) is a high-ranking Nazi. He is smitten with Antonina. When the Polish zoo is bombed, he offers to take some of the best Polish zoo specimens to Berlin. Eerily he states his intentions, ” I want to rescue the best of your breed.”  The sexual tension  between Chastain and Bruhl almost throws the movie into melodrama. As Lutz Heck, Bruhl’s lust for Antonina is pivotal to the tension and to his ultimate decision on the fate of Antonina’s son. I found the bison mating scene symbolically over the top. Screenwriter Angela Workman is herself the daughter of Jewish Polish immigrants. Her dialogue, like when Antonina tells Lutz , ” You disgust me.” often seems trite. Antonina’ s husband’s jealousy is equally forceful and blunt. ” Put your shoes on. You are not a child.” The film works best with the interplay of restraint and withheld verbal emotion. The character’s faces tell all.

Given the horrific facts about the German occupation of Poland, the film’s  ending seems a tad implausible. The low flying planes, the no-transit train station, the protecting of valuable collections, and the harboring of friends are details worthy of remembrance. This is a quiet story of a valiant family trying to do the right thing. It succeeds here. I especially like the all-knowing zoo manager, Jerzyk ( Michael McElhatton ) . He is both protector and observer of the family and its mission. Extremely loyal and aware of Lutz’s motivations, Jerzyk lies in  telling Lutz that the Zambinskis  have  left on a holiday. He then watches as the  Reich’s zoologist turned Nazi commander shoots a majestic  bald eagle and then commands that it be stuffed.

Chastain is at her best with the young rape victim Urszula ( Shira Haas). In trying to bond with the girl and gain her trust, she empathizes with her own backstory . Her father was shot in St. Petersburg and the remainder of her family ran. ” It is a hard life in hiding. You can never know who to trust.” Again, the dialogue is a tad stilted. ” Antonina continues with the trailer line, ” You look at animals’ eyes and you know what is in their hearts.” A bunny is then given to the girl and this breaks her out of her catatonic stare. The animals and their suffering mirrors  the collapse of natural order. War disrupts and discards. The Zabinskis do their best to right what they can.

This film reminds us that “Hitler is kaput” is the signage that spoke wishful volumes. ” The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a paragraph in one Holocaust chapter. This is all it claims to be. Don’t pass it over or you will miss a chance to see an ordinary family do soul touching things.