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Jessica Chastain’s Memorable Performance as ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

Apr. 4, 2017
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The zoo that is the principal location for The Zookeeper’s Wife begins as an Eden in the heart of Warsaw, Poland, and ends as a sanctuary for the oppressed. The “based on a true story” opens in the sunny summer of 1939 as the wife in question, Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain), romps around the grounds of this remarkably enlightened facility. Giraffes inhabit a recreated grassland, monkeys have plenty of bars to climb, and a llama chases Antonina down the bicycle path. Antonina feeds apples to the hippopotamus and says good morning to the elephants, which are given plenty of leg room in their pen. 

One almost wants to travel through time, pay the price of admission, buy a bag of popcorn and spend the day inside this gated haven. But soon enough, a dark cloud of anxiety passes overhead. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union sign their infamous Non-Aggression Pact and the world begins to hold its breath. Poland will be carved up like an Easter ham and the Warsaw Zoo will fall to the Nazis. 

The Zookeeper's Wife

Jessica Chastain

Jonah Heldenbergh

Directed by Niki Caro

Rated PG-13

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a Holocaust narrative in the Anne Frank-Schindler’s List tradition of Jews sheltered by righteous gentiles, but on an emotional level, it’s also a story of human cruelty against the whole of creation. The monkeys stop playing and listen as the zookeepers continue to work unaware—the animals raise their heads as the Luftwaffe appears in the sky above Warsaw. The bombs fall and the faces of the beasts explode into terror, their shrieks accompanying the explosions. Antonina has unusual empathy for the animals in her charge. At first she seems more comfortable with them than with people, but, overcoming her anxiety, she turns the basement of the villa where she lives with her husband (and the zoo’s director), Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), into a hiding place for Jews. 

The Zookeeper’s Wife would fall dangerously close to the dependability of a story often told if not for Chastain’s performance. One wonders at first whether Antonina is too beautiful for the world she will be thrust into—a delicate crystal goblet that will crack when used. But the shock in her eyes as war erupts conceals a fragile yet tensile resolve to thwart the designs of the Nazi occupiers. In this she has the unwitting assistance of a Nazi, the prominent German zoologist, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). 

Heck was a colleague of her husband from before the war when, as a guest at the villa, he seems already to have developed feelings for Antonina. With a timidly coquettish glance, Antonina leads him gently on through the war years. Her prized animals are carted off to the Berlin Zoo rather than slaughtered, and in an irony a Nazi could appreciate, the Warsaw Zoo is preserved from destruction by becoming a pig farm sustained by scraps from the Jewish ghetto. Antonina’s husband, risking his life to smuggle Jews from the ghetto under cover of those scraps, is increasingly angered by her dalliance with their German friend.

New Zealand director Niki Caro debuted on the world cinema stage with the remarkable Whale Rider (2002), a film with comparable understanding of its female protagonist and a similar flirtation with magical realism. The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t entirely escape the temptation of Hollywood melodrama, and would benefit from some careful trimming, yet includes a score of memorable scenes and is sustained and elevated by Chastain’s unforgettable performance.


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