By Matthew Mendisana
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a true story set in World War II. It isn’t the first film to be based around that period, and it probably won’t be the last, but “The Zookeeper’s Wife” not only stands out from the long lineup of WWII films, it stands on its own as this year’s most compelling drama. A film that shows that the real animals on screen are the ones wearing the dark and murky uniforms.
The film takes place in Poland at the Warsaw Zoo, which is under the care and management of Antonina Zabinski, played by Jessica Chastain, and her husband Jan Zabinski, played by Johan Heldenbergh. On September 1, 1939, their country is attacked and taken under occupation by German forces. It isn’t long before their zoo starts to suffer as their animals are either slaughtered in the occupation, or taken under the supervision and care of Dr. Lutz Heck, or Hitler’s zoologist, as he’s known, played by Daniel Brühl.
While the family tries to cope with how their world is changing all around them, they soon witness the atrocities their Jewish friends and neighbors face as they’re pulled from their homes and forced into a decrepit area of Warsaw simply named: The Ghetto. Unable to stomach the inhuman treatment, the husband and wife conspire to rescue as many people as they can. However, as the years roll by, their plan grows more treacherous as Dr. Heck and the Germans continue to occupy their country and their zoo.
Any film that tries to juggle the theme of man’s inhumanity to man can be a difficult concept to handle, but even harder when the words “Based on a True Story” are written right in the beginning. However, the film has another theme to help balance out the film: humanitarianism. While the Nazis characterize brutality, the Zabinskis, and those they collaborate with, characterize altruism.
If the plot and themes alone aren’t enough to entice you, then the acting will. Daniel Brühl delivers a strong performance as Dr. Heck as he goes from a charming zoologist, into a bitter and unfeeling Nazi. Johan Heldenbergh also shows his talent as well, not just through his delivery, but through his expressions. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say his character actually observes the horror the Germans can inflict, and his shock and dread is reflected through his performance. However, it’s Jessica Chastain who ultimately steals the show.
If the Nazis represent the darkness of man, then Antonina Zabinski represents the light. While her husband is the one bringing the rescued to their zoo, Antonina is the one trying to make them comfortable. Whether by playing them the piano, helping them draw, or just offering them food and shelter, through her compassion, Antonina shows that even in the darkest places, there are ways to find hope. And Jessica Chastain hits that point home. I’ll genuinely be surprised if she isn’t offered an Oscar for her role.
Besides the characters, the animals were another interesting feature in the film. I was surprised they managed to include such a variety of animals. In an age where it’s cheaper, and easier, to just CGI (Computer-Generated-Image) in the animals, the fact that the filmmakers went the extra mile and used authentic, and trained animals is a big point in the movie’s favor.
The film is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, and brief sexual content, although it feels like it’s one bad word away from receiving an R rating. The subjects and themes presented are heavy and will be difficult for younger and/or sensitive viewers to swallow. However, don’t let that discourage you from seeing the film. Through its beautiful presentation, perfect cast, and strong story, I’m proud to give “The Zookeeper’s Wife” a solid 8 out of 10 and call it a must see.
Marco Island resident and avid moviegoer, Matthew Mendisana is a Lynn University alumnus. While he possesses a bachelor’s degree in science, it’s the arts that attracted his attention. In his four years at Lynn, Matthew managed to achieve Magna Cum Laude status, earn three publications in the Lynn University magazine, make a short documentary featured in the university’s Film Festival, and created a radio PSA that was later broadcasted overseas.