“The Zookeeper’s Wife” – Atlanta Film Festival Review (4 of 5 Stars)

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By Rebecca Daniel, Senior Editor

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl

Directed by: Niki Caro

Rated: PG-13 

If everyone around you was suffering, but you had the power to save them would you do it? What if saving them meant risking your life in return? I hope we could all say yes if the situation demanded it, but it’s easy to comply when the question is theoretical. The Zookeeper’s Wife challenges us to look at the situation from the perspective of a courageous woman who could answer yes to the questions posed above, Antonia Zabinski.

Antonina and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenberg) run the Warsaw Zoo in Poland. It’s a place brimming with life as animals fill the grounds and people joyfully visit. When the Nazi’s invade the country, the zoo that was once so vibrant begins to lose its spirit. Jan and Antonina find they must report to Lutz Heck, (Daniel Brühl….yeah, he’s playing a Nazi again) Hitler’s chief zoologist. As Nazi presence looms, the treatment of local Jews becomes increasingly brutal. The couple decides they must do something to help those around them. They devise a plan to hide Jews at their zoo with hopes of saving their lives. 

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) recreates the haunting images of Poland in World War II.  In the first act of the film, Caro focuses on the impact the war had on the animals in the Warsaw Zoo.  In one particularly chilling scene, a group of Antonina and Jan’s zoo animals run around a recently bombed Warsaw, hopeless and alone. While watching that scene I realized, I’ve never thought about the impact the war had on animals. It’s upsetting, eye opening and yet another reminder of the Nazi’s disregard for life.

As the film progresses, Caro focuses on the Zabinski’s plan to get the Jews to the zoo in hopes of saving their lives. Tension builds at every corner as Lutz Heck continually checks in on the zoo and Nazi troops patrol every crevice of the Warsaw area. Although one of the worst chapter’s of humanity is explored here, there is still time to show that love and kindness can be found in the darkest times. Jan goes out on rescue missions, while Antonina takes care of those who were brought in to stay. The two begin to form a strong familial bond with the Jews. 

I’m always impressed by the roles Jessica Chastain chooses (The Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty, Take Shelter, etc.) and The Zookeeper’s Wife is no exception. She plays Antonina with just the right balance of strength and compassion. Using a convincing thick Polish accent, she communicates with an air of gentleness to put everyone at ease in deeply unnerving times. When she must deal with the advances of Lutz Heck, she puts the safety of those around her before herself.

Although it has become stereotypical for Daniel Brühl to play a Nazi there is a bit of complexity to his character, Lutz Heck. He is brutal, but has a past friendship with Antonina through their shared interest of animals. It makes the situation more complicated.

One aspect of the film I didn’t love was a subplot involving Jan. He becomes very jealous of Lutz and Antonina because he thinks they could be having an affair. The whole scenario feels very soap opera-esque especially considering how drastic their situation has become.

Despite that, Johan Heldenberg plays Jan quite well. He and Chastain have a strong presence together through the film.

Led by Jessica Chastain’s wonderful performance, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a powerful tale of love amidst brutality. It illustrates that in the darkest of times we can find the greatest hope. Don’t miss out on this impactful story!  

4 out of 5 stars.

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