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article imageReview: ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ puts humanity at the forefront of war Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Apr 2, 2017 in Entertainment
‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is a WWII narrative that focuses on a female perspective of the war and the sacrifices they made in fighting back.
Before Germany invaded most countries in World War II, people of all creeds lived harmoniously. Yet when they arrived, those same people watched their neighbours be rounded up at gunpoint and first taken to ghettos then concentration camps. Yet there were some who could not stand by and watch as friends and strangers were led like lambs to the slaughter. They’re the subjects of countless stories of courageous souls risking their lives to save others. The latest is The Zookeeper’s Wife, which chronicles a dangerous underground railroad for Jews escaping Poland.
Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh) happily ran the Warsaw Zoo until 1939, when the Germans took control of the city. They were not Jewish, but many of their friends were persecuted under the new regime. Their prized animals are politely confiscated by Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), Hitler’s top zoologist, who also takes control of the park. The Zabinskis are permitted to stay and eventually offer to raise pigs for the army. However, it’s a ruse that allows them access to the ghetto and opportunity to save many of its captives. While Jan handles the logistics of the rescue, Antonina is left to occupy and distract Lutz — a task in which neither of them take pleasure.
The majority of the narrative takes place within the zoo, so not much is seen of life within the ghetto; though what is shown is degrading and horrific, ranging from rape to people killed indiscriminately in the streets… and later, the heart-breaking train transfer to the camps. At the zoo, the casualties of war are shown to range from its former animal residents to men, women and children disenfranchised by the Nazi occupation. The unwanted animals are disposed of with shocking yet familiar indifference. Meanwhile, those liberated from the ghetto cower in the Zabinskis’ basement listening for signals and waiting to temporarily rejoin their hosts and civilization when the coast is clear.
The war is always in the background, but the film centres on the personal struggles of the Zabinski family and those they’ve helped. Jan is committed to helping as many people as possible, while Antonina is forced to conceal her disgust for Lutz in order to contribute to the same cause — who is making the greater sacrifice is subjective, but the focus is clearly on the woman’s perspective. However the picture never really becomes too intimate with any of them, keeping the audience on the periphery of the danger and their pain. Director Niki Caro ensures most of the worst offences are committed off-screen, but the characters go to such efforts to keep their emotions in check it consequently dissociates the viewer from the movie, only allowing them to feel the most deeply awful moments.
There was conjecture that this film may be Chastain’s next chance at an Oscar nomination, but even though it checks off all the right boxes it isn’t exactly the performance of a lifetime — she was more impressive in Miss Sloane. Maybe next time.
Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh and Daniel Brühl
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