I’ve heard this one before. Well, not exactly this one. With Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Life is Beautiful, The Book Thief, and many more it’s hard to say the Holocaust is an original outlet for storytelling. And yet, there’s always more to say. Every story of survival is another shock to the system. They can make a million Fast and Furious blockbusters that eventually all look the same, or they can tell a secret buried under the terrifying years of Nazi occupation. I have nothing against cars hitting sixth gear from an airplane, but it’s more likely memories of the latter that will catch up to me during week. This isn’t a casual heist; these are schemes to save countless lives over several years, operating in secret at great personal risk. The zookeeper’s wife may not be diesel-fueled, but she’s an excellent liar with one mean-looking bicycle.
We’ve heard about the ghettos and the trains crowding Warsaw, Poland in the early 1940s, but have you heard of its local zoo? Owned and operated by Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain), it’s a small family business where the hippos say hello and the camels wander freely. Caring for the zoo is Antonina’s calling, so when she hears of Hitler’s international ambitions and sees an increase in Germans around the neighbourhood, she hesitates to pack up and leave it all behind. She and Jan also have to consider the wellbeing of their son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford), and a life on the run. The family decides to stay and the next day Germany invades. With half of their zoo destroyed and no hope for maintaining the business during the occupation, Antonina is forced to rely on Lutz (Daniel Brühl), a slightly shady German with an affinity for animals. Lutz swears to use his pull as Hitler’s chief zoologist to care for her prize stock – in Berlin. Anxious to keep their family in Warsaw and desperate to help the increasingly persecuted Jews, Antonina and Jan make an arrangement with Lutz to turn their now empty zoo into a pig farm for the Nazis. Their real mission, however, is to use the zoo’s hidden corners to smuggle Jews out of Poland. Warsaw’s newest pig farm becomes a secret holding place for the desperate and the hunted.
It all happens right under the Nazi’s noses. Jan sneaks new refugees into their basement practically every day, Antonina hides them and sets up auditory cues with her piano, and the family welcomes them upstairs after the German guard has gone home. The Zookeeper’s Wife captures their very dangerous routine, especially since Lutz is fond of daily visits to the house. Still, Jan and Antonina do this for years. The number of refugees that flow through is staggering. Their dance of meek zookeepers by day and hosts by night is a tough double life to keep straight, with a terrible prize if they slip up. It’s a fine example of bravery and quick-thinking, and it’s all the more inspiring because the story is true.
It isn’t easy bringing heroes to life on the big screen. Thankfully, Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh play their parts with strength and respect. Heldenbergh brings us a hearty Jan, who fights an internal battle every time he can’t step in to save someone, often leading to a rushed effort to clean up the mess shortly after. This is undeniably the case with the girl he meets on his first trip into the Jewish ghetto. He knows those soldiers are total hooligans, but if he were to stand in the way both Jan and the girl would be shot. Reluctantly, he drives on. What Jan can do, after the fact, is whisk her away to a safer place. She may not be out of the woods, but at least he can coax her down from the treetops.
Heartbreakingly, Jan can’t save everyone. It’s a good thing Antonina stays put at the zoo because she would most certainly try to save them all. Jessica Chastain plays a character that loves so deeply she would kiss a hippo and hug a lion without hesitation. When she has no animals to care for (although a purse-sized something is never too far away), Antonina begins her collection of refugees. Her basement is a revolving door for anyone who needs a temporary or more permanent place to hide. Dangerously but necessarily, Antonina builds a relationship with Lutz – the kind husbands disapprove of – to keep her guests safe. Jan may be checking in and out of the ghetto every day, but Antonina keeps her enemies as close as she can stand.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is as much about the wife as it is about the husband. It’s the efforts of an entire family that rescue so many people. Jan’s gruff fortitude and Antonina’s lamppost-like resolve make The Zookeeper’s Wife a chilling and suspenseful experience. Not every Holocaust victim went to a camp and not every victim was Jewish. The Zookeeper’s Wife is the perfect telling of how dangerous everyday life became nearly overnight. It’s an 8/10.