A story of incredible courage in the face of unimaginable horror, is told in this terrifying true WWII tale.
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It’s Poland in 1939, and the owners of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain), have a special relationship with not only their animals, but their zoo’s guests.
At a party the couple host, the head zoologist at Berlin’s zoo, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), helps them to save a baby elephant from suffocation. Heck is soon to become Hitler’s head zoologist, and it would seem he has eyes not only for Antonina’s animals, but also for Antonina herself.
As the war draws closer, this alliance will soon become vital, despite it being on tense and compromising terms. When Warsaw is bombed, and taken over by Nazi forces, Heck manages to help them save what’s left of their zoo, but even more horror is to come.
The new Nazi rule has established a Jewish ghetto, which sees thousands of Jewish Germans sentenced to the most inhumane form of imprisonment, including rampant torture. Mystery surrounds the ghetto, and on the outside, it seems hard to comprehend its existence, or even what is occurring inside.
When Antonina’s close Jewish friends are ordered out of their homes and into the ghetto, she and her husband feel compelled to act—but doing so will not only risk their lives, but that of their children’s. With their recently bombed zoo now serving as a pig farm for Nazi soldiers, they devise a daring plan to rescue as many Jews from the ghetto as possible, by hiding them in the cages where their animals once lived.
The horror of the Holocaust is difficult—if not impossible—to capture in any authentic way on film, but this one does it best in its subtler moments. The lifting of toddlers on to a train bound for Auschwitz, or the off-screen assault of a young girl, are stomach-turning reminders of humanity’s darkest nature. It’s hard to watch.
But, sadly, the film lacks consistency. It’s the willingness of the film to be in some moments graphic and overt, and yet in others quite restrained, that I found confusing. As much as the subject matter of this film is undeniably compelling, I didn’t feel connected to the characters as much as I’d hoped. It’s a pity, because the supporting cast do an incredible job.
The story of this brave family deserves to be told, and its subjects celebrated for their willingness to risk everything to save others. The Zookeeper’s Wife has powerful moments, but it fails to truly convey the emotional depths of the situation. Given just how horrific it was, perhaps the director can be forgiven for doing so, but the film is poorer for it.
Director: Niki Caro
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Brühl
Runtime: 2 hours 7 mins
Release Date: May 4
Reviewer Rating: 3/5
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