By: Debbie Wang
Are there ever enough movies about unsung heroes from Holocaust? Maybe. But perhaps we need these films, like The Zookeeper’s Wife, now more than ever. With all that’s going on in the world and the current political climate, we need stories about compassionate people to remind us that hate cannot win.
In Niki Caro’s adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name, Jessica Chastain is Antonina Żabińska, a true hero during the Holocaust, who is the epitome of the Lawful Good alignment. Along with her husband Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh), the director of the Warsaw Zoo, they managed to rescue hundreds of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
With a film that starts off with such a beautiful moment, you almost forget that disaster is on the horizon for the Żabińskis. Antonina starts the morning by looking down lovingly on her son, Ryszard, who is sleeping in bed with two lion cubs. That’s right, the mutual trust between Antonina and the animals at the Zoo are so strong that she is comfortable letting these potentially dangerous animals cuddle with her baby boy. It’s hard to think of a more idyllic way to wake up in the morning.
Under the obsessively and creepy watchful eye of Hitler’s favourite zoologist from Berlin, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), Antonina and Jan life their dream life taking care of the animals. In one of the best scenes in the first act, Antonina saves a baby elephant from suffocating to death. The love she has for these animals is so raw and so pure that it could bring a grown man to his knees. But all dreams must end sooner or later, and everything the Żabińskis have worked their entire lives for is destroyed when the Zoo is the target of an aerial attack as the Germans invade Poland. The bombing hits you so suddenly that you think wonder what kind of person is evil enough to bomb a zoo, and then you remember this is all happening during WWII.
When the German troops start forcing Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto, including one of Antonina’s dearest friends, she and her husband come up with a plan to hide as many Jews as they can in their Zoo until they can escape to safety. By reopening up their zoo under the guise of raising pigs to feed German soldiers, the Żabińskis hide what they’re doing in plain sight from Heck.
In such despairing times, Antonina is the much needed light. Scenes outside of the Zoo are all grey and bleak, but once the camera pans back to Chastain and surrounds her with soft light and pastel colours, you are reminded to hold onto the last bit of hope you have left. Chastain’s performance might seem understated, but there is nothing meek about Antonina. Shakespeare said it best: Thought she be but little, she be fierce. “He frightens me,” she says of Heck to her husband. Who can blame her? Heck makes unwanted sexual advances towards her and has an unexplainable obsession to breed an already extinct animal. Yet neither he nor the Holocaust breaks her – it just makes her will to keep fighting evil with empathy even stronger.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a welcome reminder to never forget the atrocities that occurred in the 1940’s and to do what we can to avoid a repeat. But like one of the most horrific scenes in the entire film depicts an Aryan woman posing for a picture in front of the Ghetto, there are always going to be people who don’t care about the pain and suffering of others. And we mustn’t feel defeated. We must continue to channel our inner Antonina and give love and compassion to those we need it more than us.
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