Poland 1939: The Nazis have invaded Poland, the homeland of Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh). Under the Żabińskis, Warsaw Zoo thrives. When Poland is invaded by Germany, they are forced to answer to the Reich’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). Soon after, the Nazis begin what will be known as the ‘Final Solution’ AKA the mass extermination of the Jews. Rather than sit by and watch, our heroes begin to work with the Resistance and subsequently, save the lives of hundreds of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
“You can never tell who your enemies are or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much — you look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts” says Antonina (Chastain), and she’s right. Animals often let their feelings known. They either like you or don’t like you. People are more tricky, often stabbing you in the back, manipulating you and god knows what else before they let their feelings known. Based on the non-fiction text of the same name by poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman, this film tells the biographical narrative of the Żabińskis, a family who covertly sheltered Jews in their zoo between 1939 and 1945.
Sheltering Jews in the confines of Warsaw Zoo, the Żabińskis really stuck their neck out, all in the name of doing the right thing. Before the Nazis came, the Polish Jews and the Polish Christians lived together in harmony. Many of the Jews were the Żabińskis good friends and this is one more film that is criticising the current ‘us or them’ hysteria that has taken the world by storm, regardless of whether we’re looking at The West or the East. The more I look at it, the more I see that the number of safe places to be different are dwindling.
The actions of the family saved hundreds, and it goes to show that material objects can be taken from you without a second thought. But when it comes to more important things like humanity, self-respect and dignity, things like that are harder to steal and can only be stolen if you stand by do nothing, by playing into The Bystander Effect. The Żabińskis put up a front. They pretended to be okay with everything that was happening whilst secretly fighting the regime by no rules but their own thus allowing Polish Jews to escape the renowned Warsaw Ghetto and their eventual extermination.
This is a celebration of ordinary heroes who did an extraordinary thing. It’s about how people like you and I, those with real life problems took on something bigger than themselves and attained a small victory… in relation to the grand scheme of things. To the families they saved, it meant the world. They avoided mass extermination but in the bigger picture, three hundred Jews is small. Tales like this are often embellished upon for entertainment, no thanks to Hollywood. But this time around, thanks to director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) places directorial stress on hard circumstances of war in order to show the couple’s bravery rather than making them look like they’re playing God.
I believe life is precious, whether that be man or woman; human or animal; black or white. As the film starts, we are witness to a picturesque pre-war Poland with sunshine and happiness. Then the war came, along with gutter blood outside the slaughterhouses of Warsaw. Then there was the screaming due to the terror that Nazis bought upon a nation. The bombing in the opening segments made Warsaw Zoo a baren wasteland. Was it a zoo anymore? Certainly not during the war, it became a safe house staring the German oppressors in the eyes, blind in their blindness which further highlighted the Żabiński’s self-sacrificing spirit and sound moral character.
Emmeline Pankhurst said “deeds not words” in relation to the Votes for Women motto. I could apply this quote in relation to Antonina’s conscience. Could she live with herself if she did nothing to help an honest people from racial persecution? The Jews had done nothing wrong, and some of them were her greatest friends. They were born Jewish and she was born Christian. It plays into this ideology of ‘us and them’ and along with new period drama, The Promise, about the Armenian Genocide, The Zookeeper’s Wife is another honest depiction of racism, a term that is as potent now as it was then.
Here, the horrors of the Holocaust are represented through fictional character Urszula (Shira Haas) who is saved by Jan after being raped by two Nazi soldiers. Despite being fictional, her place in the story is an effective one, in which director Caro depicts the scale of the Zabinski’s Jewish extractions from Warsaw. Not only is she a symbol of what children suffered during German occupation, she’s also one perspective of what women endured. She is the face of the persecuted Jew, and in a way she’s an extension of the humanity that Antonina has too. Urszula’s healing after the tragedy is symbolic of what the Zabinski’s gave to the three hundred Jews between 1939 and 1945.
Many films have told stories of ordinary people doing great acts during the Holocaust. Yet, there are few like this, films which don’t put the protagonists on a moral pedestal. We see a community laid bare, physically and psychologically, due to the totalitarian rule of the Nazis. We are witness to the hopelessness of an oppressed people, which goes beyond the Jews. If you weren’t a Nazi, you may not be treated as badly as the Jews but it was still hellish. Though, oppressed people always find a way to celebrate, with feel-good scenes when Christian and Jew would break bread together. Small acts of unity. That made me smile.
‘Us or them’ is an ideology that has only been emphasised upon since the inauguration of Mr Trump, and Britain’s exit from the EU. I recently watched Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). It’s a film about a reporter (Gregory Peck) pretending to be Jewish so he can find out what racism is like for Jews in post-Second World War America. When we’re still making the same kind of films exactly seventy years later with the same themes of racism, prejudice and bigotry, you know there’s a problem. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a call to action. We are all human. Regardless of our caste, creed, colour, sexual orientation, faith, ethnic origin or gender, are we not all the same species?
With great performances from the cast, including Game of Thrones’ Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton) in support, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a must watch. It’s a great film with a powerful message. My only gripe is that it could lose ten minutes from the climax. Regardless of it being a little long, this film really tells the story of today’s society. Based on the non-fiction text by Diane Ackerman and written for the screen by Angela Workman, they are both writing the present and that’s spooky.