THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
by Jennifer Bryce
I came away from this movie wondering whether it is possible to capture on screen the utter human devastation of the holocaust; whether we might have returned home from this film not weeping from having been dragged through an emotional roller-coaster of seeing animals maimed and sweet young children helped onto cattle-trucks to a concentration camp, but weeping for humanity. That would be the challenge. And that’s where this movie fell short.
Other reviewers have said, and I agree, that we, the audience, are led to feel almost more compassion for the zoo animals (terrified by the initial bombing of Warsaw and then shot as they flee through the city streets) than we have for people in the Warsaw ghetto, in particular those who were rescued by Antonina and Jan Zabiński. This couple are most definitely heroes of the war – their courage was magnificent. They helped 300 people escape from the Warsaw ghetto, hiding them in the zoo. According to the film, only two of these escapees were discovered and shot by the Nazis. Antonina had boundless compassion for animals. Early in the movie we see her, in her cocktail dress, risking her life as she resuscitates a new-born elephant. We see similar compassion when a young girl is rescued from the ghetto and brought to the hiding-place in the zoo, mute with fear after being brutally raped by two Gestapo. But the other Jewish people are barely more than cardboard props as they sit at their clandestine Seder or stuff clothing in their children’s mouths to keep them quiet when Antonina has given a warning signal by playing the piano.
I was irritated by Jessica Chastain’s mock Polish accent – the other characters seemed okay – but it made me feel that I would have liked the Polish people to speak Polish (rather than English) – most of the time the Germans spoke German (with subtitles). Daniel Brühl’s clipped German-accented English was an exception. He made an excellent Lutz Heck, Hitler’s head zoologist, who is creepily into animal eugenics and, with World War 2 thundering around him, is interested in reviving some extinct species of buffalo through a special breeding program.
Where was the tension? Antonina deceives Heck and uses her feminine wiles (although she loathes him) to give him confidence that she is his friend and all is well, so he won’t look too closely into the pig farming being carried out at the zoo, or the food scraps brought from the ghetto to feed the pigs. At one point, Heck makes a surprise visit to the zoo residence and one of the escapees has to hide from him in shadows, only metres from him, but my heart wasn’t pounding.
For me, the most unconvincing part of the movie was the ending. It is a true story, and apparently the Zabiński family survived; Jan returning home some time after the end of the war, having survived injury and imprisonment after resistance-fighting. The movie falls close to suggesting that everyone lived happily ever after. The zoo was re-opened in 1949 and prior to that we are shown people living there in a kind of commune, growing their vegetables. A huge relief for Antonina that Jan returned, seemingly physically unharmed – but what impact would the trauma have had on their relationship and the lives of the people living around them?