It is impossible to forget the Holocaust. But we should be careful that we do not become numb to it.
So many victims, so many villains, so much violence – so overwhelming it can become a horrific blur, a ghostly parade of numbers and facts and faceless despair.
Which is why stories like “The Zookeeper’s Wife” are important – stories of individuals who stood up, stood out and made a difference.
Based on the 2007 book by Diane Ackerman, the film begins in Warsaw in the late ’30s. Jan Zabinski and his wife, Antonina, run the city zoo, and for her, it is a little like a childhood fantasy.
She rides her bike down the main path, a tame camel trotting by her side. She shucks off her shoes to pitch hay into a cage. At night, she cuddles in bed with couple of lion cubs.
And then the German Army marches in.
The Reich announces its cruelty from the start, bombing the zoo and shooting the animals. Shock and awe. But then, of course, they turn their full attention on the city’s Jews.
And Jan and Antonina, although gentiles, decide to use their zoo to hide and shelter the hunted – the iron gates, for once, working to keep the brutal humans out.
It’s a small film and sometimes an uncertain one (screenwriter Angela Workman doesn’t do a good job of getting a lot of the operation’s nuts-and-bolt details on the screen). But it’s held together by the fierce-as-always Jessica Chastain, who – burrowing deep into a slight Slavic acccent – brings Antontina to trembling, big-hearted life.
Antonina is, perhaps, too open, too sensitive a woman, the zoo providing a kind of refuge for her, too. But that is what makes her such a good partner to her husband (played by the stolid Johan Heldenbergh). He will figure out how to get the Nazi’s targets safely out of the Warsaw ghetto, and then safely on their way again.
But while they’re hidden away at the zoo, it is Antonina who will make sure they are given back their lives.
Director Niki Caro – who made the lovely “McFarland, USA,” the powerful “North Country” and the classic “Whale Rider” – is in firm control throughout (a necessity in a film which employs both animals small children).
The period details feel correct without being overpowering; a scene where snowflakes turn out to be the ashes of a burning city is both haunting and horrifying. Because we know what worse fires lie ahead.
Yet I think it’s Chastain who deserves most of the credit here, and not just for her passionate performance. She is the only “name” in the film (which includes Daniel Bruhl as a Nazi official, and a largely Czech cast). Her involvement – and her support of Caro, a woman whose artful films have not always gotten the audiences they deserved – was probably crucial in getting this made.
And it needed to be made, and it needs to be seen. If only to remind us that, for all the horrifying statistics, those vast numbers – on both the right side and the horribly wrong — were made up of faces, of lives, of people. And that some people, when it mattered most, dared to resist.
Ratings note: The film contains violence, sexual situations, nudity.