She was the Harriet Tubman of Warsaw, Poland around 1940. Antonina Zabinski (born 1908, died 1971) and her husband Jan (1897 – 1974), managers of the Warsaw Zoo, helped hundreds of Jews escape death from the Nazis by hiding them. The Zabinskis gave them a safe haven and an escape route out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Their heroism is on view.
The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, a non-fiction book written by the poet Diane Ackerman, is based on the diaries of Antonina Zabinski (born . Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) has brought the screenplay by Angela Workman (War Bride) to life, with the aide of producers Diane Miller Levin and Robbie Rowe Tollin. In many ways this is a feminist story and a team of female creatives bringing this project to fruition is fitting.
Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty, Miss Sloane) has a way with the animals at the Warsaw Zoo. A baby camel runs after her as she bikes around the grounds. She knows how to apply CPR to a baby elephant and save its life. Lion cubs gravitate to her too. Life with her husband Jan (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh, The Broken Circle Breakdown) and her young son Ryszard (Timothy Radford as the child, and Val Maloku as the older boy) is idyllic.
When German war planes fly over the city, bombing indiscriminately, every day life ends and a nightmare begins. The Zabinskis survive, their villa is damaged and the zoo is a shambles. Cages are broken, animals escape and tigers roam the streets. It’s a surreal experience that grows worse when the Reich’s chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, Rush), comes to the zoo and steals animals or kills them. Jews are being rounded up, detained by the Nazis and herded into the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto in Europe during World War II.
Fearing for the lives of their Jewish friends Magda (Efrat Dor) and Maurycy (Iddo Goldberg), the Zabinskis concoct a plan to hide them and others in the basement of their villa, where a labyrinth of secret tunnels run from outdoor cages. Antonina hatches a plan to camouflage their sanctuary. She suggests that they raise pigs at the zoo to feed the German soldiers, which appeals to Heck’s inflated ego. He falls for it, adding his own proposal: they will breed hybrid bison on the property too. For the next few years, under the noses of the Nazis, the Zabinskis hide Jews and help them escape. Eventually, Jan joins a Resistance group and along with those rebels, is involved in the Warsaw Uprising.
So many facets of this film adaptation work well together, especially on the tech side. The cinematography by Andrij Parekh (Half Nelson, Blue Valentine), with color-saturated shots of the animals and zoo property along with perfectly lit villa interiors and Nazi headquarters, is vivid. The production design (Suzie Davies, Mr. Turner) evokes the period perfectly. The editing (David Coulson, Whale Rider) keeps the pacing crisp through the romantic moments, dramatic scenes and tense sequences. The musical score (Harry Gregson-Williams, The Martian) highlights the bombings, interrogations and daring escapes with sounds that swell to proper crescendos.
Niki Caro orchestrates the proceedings with a very sensitive eye that never wavers. She is equally adept at exploring the relationship between the jealous husband and flirtatious wife and the scary moments when it looks like their refuge will be exposed. Expect your heart to skip a beat or two, especially as Heck menaces Antonina, questioning her motives, suspecting subterfuge and trying to bed her.
The director finds the nuances in the couple’s romance, their family drama and respectfully observes the historical nature of the film. Thanks to her and a very multidimensional script, there are layers and layers to this storytelling that take you to a climax that seems like it was concocted from a provocative novel. In fact, it is based on a true story.
The frostiness of Daniel Brühl’s performance, as the zookeeper’s nemesis, makes you fear what he may do every time he is on the screen. His evilness hits a low point in the scenes in which he cold-bloodedly shoots the animals. The chemistry between Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh is undeniable. Adults will admire both Zabinski characters, thanks to the actors who play them with such authenticity. Their performances aren’t overly theatrical. They do justice to a legacy of two people who witnessed atrocities and acted: Antonina says, “It’s a new world. Our lives are upside down.”
The Zookeeper’s Wife is not as epic as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, or as graphic and innovative as László Nemes’ film Son of Saul. It is somewhere in the middle, in a place all its own, thanks to Niki Caro’s clear vision.
Rarely has hiding in plain sight been so intriguing.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.