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The Zookeeper’s Wife (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 126 minutes.

OK for children.

The time is 1939; the place Warsaw (the film was shot in the abandoned fortress town of Josefov, a couple of hours outside of Prague, in the Czech Republic). Anybody educated in the 20th Century will realize that the disastrous invasion of Poland by the Nazis is about to occur (Sept. 1, 1939), so tension fills the air.

Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain in what is by far her best performance) is a working wife and mother who, along with her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh), run the Warsaw zoo.

When the Nazis overrun the country, one of their friends, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) is appointed the Reich’s chief zoologist. Heck has a crush on Antonina who plays him because she and Jan have determined to use the underground cages and tunnels, created for their animals, as a place to hide Jews.

Well directed by Niki Caro from a good script (Angela Workman), adapted from Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book which was based on Antonina’s diaries, the tension is thick throughout and the pace never lets up. The recreation of the Warsaw Ghetto (last seen in Roman Polanski’s 2002 The Pianist) and the scenes therein are aching to watch.

There is one fictional character in the movie, Urszula, a Jewish orphan who is raped by two Wermacht soldiers in the ghetto, played by Shira Haas. Her performance is one that stays with you long after the movie ends.

Greatly aiding the efficacy of the film is the score (Harry Gregson-Williams) that enhances the tension almost to the breaking point.

What makes this all the more amazing is that the zoo was filled with German soldiers throughout the occupation. What the Żabińskis did and accomplished was heroism of the highest order, and it’s astounding to see.

The only complaint I have about the movie is that the Zookeeper, Dr. Jan, was just as heroic as his wife. Why isn’t the film (and the book) entitled simply “The Zookeepers?” Why single out Antonina and minimize her husband? He was the person who went inside the Ghetto each day to sneak Jews out, which was the most dangerous part of what they did.

Chastain answered this question when she appeared on “The Today Show.” She said it was a women’s project through and through. The book was written by a woman; the script was written by a woman; the director was a woman; the producer was a woman; and the star (obviously) was a woman. Chastain took pains to say how proud she was that this was such a women’s product.

I did not read the book upon which this film is based, but the only conclusion is that this is a calculatedly sexist movie  that purposefully minimized the heroism of her husband. They were both equally courageous and it is to the movie’s discredit that it does not reflect this. Instead, Dr. Jan is pictured as somewhat chauvinistic because he is hurt by Antonina’s relationship with the Nazi Heck, a relationship that the movie pictures him as perceiving as romantic. That seemed unrealistic to me. They were both in dangerous positions and he would understand that she could not alienate the Nazi. A loving husband would sympathize with her dilemma. Would someone like Dr. Jan, who risked his life and the life of his family to help the Polish Jews be so insensitive and selfish?

So I came out of the film wondering how much was true and how much was biased by all the women involved to make Antonina appear much more heroic than her husband.

Despite these doubts, this is a fine movie and a good entertainment.