Based on the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, the Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) film explores the deep pain of what it means to witness war, live war, and how to preserve what you love and come out the other side. I’m going to be really honest, friends. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for this film. So spoiler alert, there are scenes of animal and human violence which I will be discussing. You have been warned.
The film begins setting the pre-wartorn Warsaw zoo as Antonina (Jessica Chastain) rides her bicycle through the zoo preparing the animals for the opening. The combination of music and the bright colors set a warm mood and draws you in as you watch Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar) interact with the animals and spoil them with love and affection. Soon after the movie starts you see one of their elephants has given birth and the baby is struggling. Chastain immediately rushes to the young elephant’s aid though has to deal with a distraught mother elephant and angry father elephant. Through it all you watch her save the life and you know this is a woman with a big heart who cares. I totally freaking lost it and started crying.
Knowing it was based during World War II meant I was at least prepared for human on human violence. It is war after all. But somehow, my brain didn’t comprehend the zoo part of ‘zookeeper.’ As Warsaw began to be affected by the coming war, bombings eventually took out part of the zoo. And let me tell you, special effects team, you ripped my heart into a million pieces and I hate you. You get the real sense of animal destruction. If you can’t handle seeing that, I suggest you fast forward or skip or something, because this is a film worth seeing. I’m just not certain of the heart-devastating scenes. So the German military director of zoology offer them a deal to take the best of the zoo stock to preserve the bloodlines, but it’s more of a we-plan-to-take-them-anyway deal. Then they kill the rest of the animals. Are you freaking kidding me?!?! So at this point, tears streaming down my face, I’m starting to wonder if I can make it through this movie emotionally. I mean seriously, not sure if I can take it. I wanted to scream “Kill all Nazis!” But instead, I settled myself down and continued watching.
The cinematography takes a tone for the grey and brown as war sets in and you see a pall cast over everything. The degrading of the zoo and the world around them is beautifully illustrated by the deep hues and washed out tones around the scenery. You get to watch as Antonina and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) risk everything to save lives. More human on human violence, which ripped my heart apart even further. Eventually, Jan joins a Warsaw resistance army and is captured when he’s injured. Antonina is able to make it through the war and when rejoined by her husband, the two continued to own and operate the zoo.
The two were later honored for their sacrifices to save Jewish lives during the World War. It is estimated to be that 300 citizens passed through the zoo. Two women were found out after leaving and executed, but everyone else who passed through lived past the war. This is not a movie I would watch repeatedly, particularly because I can’t handle violence against animals. It doesn’t matter if it is simulated or not, I’m too sensitive and animal-loving to handle it. That being said, I believe it deserves to viewed by everyone once. It’s the kind of inspiring stories we need right now living in the current political climate. We need stories of those who stood up against evil. The stories of resisters and fighters. And this true story delivers that with strength, grace, and warmth. It’s hope.
The Zookeeper’s Wife debuted on SATURDAY, DECEMBER 23 and now can be found across the schedule and on HBONow/Go.
Writer. Reader. Hogwarts alum. Nap enthusiast. Coffee expert. Holder of tea parties. Nerdfighter. Browncoat. Whovian. Cumber cookie. Alliteration addict. Wit factory. Can often be seen making meandering journeys through her mind in search of something profound. If cranky, approach quietly and offer either caffeine or chocolate.