Since it first began operations in 1928, The Warsaw Zoo has continued to be one of the most diverse and visited zoos in all of Europe seeing in excess of over one million patrons annually. From 1939 and throughout the 1940’s however, the zoo was visited by a far smaller crowd of people – who despite their numbers flatten all records since in terms of their significance.
Directed by Niki Caro; The Zookeeper’s Wife chronicles the sacrifices, challenges and heroism of the Jan and Antonina Żabińska – the park’s owners, who used the zoo to save and house hundreds of Jewish people from the horrors of the Holocaust. In its depiction of World War II, The Zookeepers Wife offers a deeply considered and unique perspective on the conflict that sources its power from its characters and their strength.
Rarely do I focus on individual scenes in reviews that aim to analyse movies in their entirety rather than break it down into sequences, however rarely are there individual scenes that are so indicative of a film’s perspective than the invasion and bombing of Poland in its opening chapters. A scene showing the chaos and devastation of war might not seem that innovative at first, however Caro quickly shifts the perspective to focus on the panic and helplessness of the zoo animals trapped, unprepared and completely vulnerable to the bombing. It is a parallel that of course has potential to appear distasteful, however it is handled superbly. The film’s setting does far more than offer up a handful of Attenborough-esque scene transitions, which is not to say the film is about animals – just that their presence allows for both Caro and scriptwriter Angela Workman to explore the themes of innocence, desperation, cruelty and vulnerability that so often are at the forefront of war dramas in an original and unorthodox way. “You can never tell who your enemies are or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much — you look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts” whispers Chastain’s Antonia to a young Jewish girl who’s been rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto after being sexually assaulted by two German guards. Again, the film may be set in a Zoo; but there is no confusion to who the real animals are.
There is something so mesmerising about believing Jessica Chastain. I use the word ‘believe’ instead of ‘watch’ to describe how effortless Chastain’s talents make it to become captured by the characters she brings to life. So sincere is her portrayal of Antonina in this film that audiences become imprinted in her emotional journey – mirroring her desperation, anxiety and heartbreak throughout the film. Her character remains a pillar of strength in a world of chaos and desperation that one can’t help but champion for.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a powerful film marked with strength and courage that; next to films like Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge and the upcoming Roadshow release Dunkirk, reminds us that heroism in times of war is not unique to the front line. The captivating and inspiring true story of Antonina Żabińska and the hundreds of lives she and her husband saved in a period of time where basic human empathy was so easily forgotten will never not be relevant as long as there are people facing persecution and injustice. Strengthened not through the depiction of war’s chaotic masculinity, but through its attentiveness to the smallest flickers of morality, The Zookeepers Wife offers a refreshingly honest perspective on the Second World War by zoning in on the rippling effect the conflict had on the lives of everyday civilians.