Movie review: ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ captures a historical tale that still needs to be told
–It’s been more than 70 years since World War II ended. Many of those who lived and fought through it are no longer with us. But it’s an important part of our history, and we never seem to reach the end of these stories.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on a true story, is one such story. It’s about Nazis and Jews, men, women, and children fighting to survive in Poland during WWII. It’s an important story and it’s well told.
While most, if not all of us, have heard and seen these types of stories many times before, it’s a narrative that never gets old. And as that generation is slowly disappearing, it’s even more important to keep the memory of those events alive and fresh in our minds.
As has been said, those that don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. Stories like this keep those events in front of us, bringing with them the expected flood of emotions that are so important in keeping our history — even the sadder parts — alive in the present.
The film begins in the summer of 1939 in Warsaw, Poland at the zoo in the town. It’s run by Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain). They have a passion for animals and a talent for running the zoo, something that catches the eye of a German zoologist named Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl).
But there is a shadow cast over the nation as there are fears of war. Soon enough, the bombs begin to fall and the Germans invade. The zoo is badly damaged and many of the animals are killed. Those that survive are taken by Heck to his zoo in Germany.
In order to keep their zoo alive, Jan and Antonina pitch the idea of using their site as a pig farm to help feed the German Army. They’ll used the waste from the Ghetto in Warsaw to feed the pigs.
But in secret, the pig farm operation was meant as a cover. Stirred by the injustice and danger to their Jewish friends, Jan and Antonina used their zoo as a cover to help sneak people out of the Ghetto and get them to freedom. All the while doing it under the nose of Heck, who used the zoo for his own purposes.
There’s not a lot of mystery about what is going to happen in this story. It follows the historical account and the book from Diane Ackerman, and the events of WWII are well-trod ground.
But this is a story many might not be familiar with. Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider,” “North Country”) does a nice job of laying out the story. She makes the most of her cast and this true life story, helping bring the narrative to life.
Chastain, a past Academy Award nominee, is the focal point of the film and does a nice job in her role. She carries a lot of the emotionally weighty scenes and sinks into the character. Bruhl, too, is a fairly menacing villain.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” hits all the emotional beats that you’d expect in a film like this. It’s also an interesting true story about courage and compassion during a dark time.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity, and smoking.
Three stars out of four.