In case you think there are already too many films about the Holocaust, consider this: the managers of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam have to add more history of the Holocaust so that the people who stood in line for two hours know what they’re looking at.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” presents one of those personal stories within the context of history. The film, while not as smashing a piece of art as “Schindler’s List,” holds up nobly in the sub-genre that is the Holocaust film.
It opens in Poland in 1939 as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party storms in. The Zabinskis, who run the Warsaw Zoo, are caught in the blitz, but they soon figure out a way to bedevil the enemy. Jan and Antonina have Jewish friends. They are not going to let them suffer, so they offer them succor, albeit hunkering under garbage. Read on...
The Zabinskis have been conscripted to care for the pigs the Nazis are breeding, and so they pick up refuse from the ghetto to feed the pigs. Underneath the offal hide Jews, who are brought to the zoo and hidden. Three hundred of them are saved through the efforts of the Zabinskis.
Antonina is presented as a woman who loves animals beyond reason. She is portrayed beautifully by Jessica Chastain in one of her best, subtlest roles. Johan Heldenbergh plays Jan with strength, and Daniel Brühl plays the fiend with complexity. In the supporting cast of largely unknowns, Shira Haas stands out as a raped girl.
Niki Caro, who’s directed some of the finest recent films, including “The Whale Rider,” adds significantly to Holocaust films with “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on the novel by Diane Ackerman and the script by Angela Workman. But who was responsible for the many accents, wobbling all over Poland?