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Rebel Against The Nazis: The Zookeeper's Wife
During World War II, people quietly made efforts to save the lives of many Jewish people from Nazi incarceration and death. The movie The Zookeeper's Wife takes a look at the efforts made by one Polish woman and her family to ensure the safety of some of the people targeted by the Nazis. The story begins in 1939 at the Warsaw Zoo, where Antonina Zabrinska (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Jan Zabrinski (Johan Heldenbergh) are in charge of taking care of the animals there. The Blitzkrieg changes everything, as people and animals alike die in the bombing and gunfire. As the Nazis increase their presence in Poland, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a zookeeper from Berlin and Nazi officer, announces the closure of the Warsaw Zoo. He and his men confiscate the animals Heck prizes, and exterminate the ones Heck doesn't want.
While maintaining their residence at a now empty zoo, the Zabrinskis get the inspiration to help their Jewish friends. As the occupation starts to force Jews into a ghetto, one of them asks them to put her husband's life's work about insects, complete with displays, into safekeeping. Not only do they agree, but they give her a place to hide. Eventually, Jan and Antonina convince Heck to use their zoo as a pig farm as a means to feed German soldiers. Heck also uses the facility for animal experimentation, even though the Zabrinskis know Heck's plans won't work. To feed the pigs, Jan collects food scraps from the ghetto with his son Ryszard (Timothy Radford). Jan also uses the truck to smuggle some ghetto residents, covering them in the scraps to avoid detection. Some stay at the zoo, while others assume non-Jewish identities with the help of a local bakery. As the war and its atrocities continue, Jan and Antonina continue to work with caution, even as Heck starts to grow fond of Antonina.
The Zookeeper's Wife, based on the book about the Zabrinskis war efforts by Diane Ackerman (and according to what I've read, the uncredited diary accounts of Zabrinska, which were published as People And Animals), is another worthy account about people who found a way to stand against the Third Reich to save Jews. Antonina and Jan seldom expressed any open reservation to the plans Heck had so they could do their part to save friends and strangers alike. The Zookeeper's Wife is not in the same league as Schindler's List or The Pianist. For some reason, director Niki Caro, whose previous work includes Whale Rider and McFarland USA, downplays the human factor. The animal deaths in the early portion of the film should have cresendoed into a more emotional movie as humans lose their homes and their lives, but the drama becomes standard fare instead. The screenplay from Angela Workman doesn't really allow for any character development for those saved or for any other minor characters, such as the Zabrinskis housekeeper or their lead animal handler, though all were on the same side during the war years.
Chastain and Bruhl, however, give the film its greatest life in the struggle between good and evil. Antonina has watched the place she loved laid to virtual ruin, which helps to give her the resolve to help friends and strangers alike. Her guests know to remain silent by day, but she plays the piano twice a day - once to let them know it's safe to emerge and socialize for awhile, and later to let them know to resume hiding. Heck's advances make Antonina feel uneasy, but she knows she simply can't rebuff him, as he is a lifeline to her and the others. She especially wants to keep the teen Rsyzard (Val Maloku) free from Nazi influence. Bruhl shows a man emboldened by power as he not only participates in Hitler's "Final Solution," but he gets the notion of bringing the cattle-like aurochs back from extinction. He has free reign in Warsaw, and takes advantage where he can - especially as the war turns against the Germans. Heldenbergh, Radford, and Maloku provide good support, as do Iddo Goldberg and Efrat Dor as the couple who first reach out to the Zabrinskis. Shira Haas also has a small, but notable, part as Urszula, a teen Jan rescues after she's attacked by Nazi troops.
Tales of survival during World War II should be fertile ground for film stories. The Zookeeper's Wife, to some extent, succeeds. The movie, however, underplays the human factor, both in terms of heorism and tragedy. I would like to have known more about the others who did their parts in Warsaw besides the Zabrinskis. Many of these people found ways to defy Hitler without ever taking up arms against their oppressors. They showed that they did whatever they could to make their Jewish friends and acquaintances safe in a place where a warped and disturbing notion targeted them. Antonia and others simply found a way to hide their efforts in plain sight.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Zookeeper's Wife three stars. Warsaw's quiet fight against the Nazis.