Yes, it's like a Polish “Schindler's List.”
This is the true story of Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and
her husband Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), who happened to own a Zoo in
the middle of Warsaw in the summer of 1939----yes, right before the German
invastion of Poland on September 1st which launched the whole
world into a devastating six-year War.
Nothing was the same after that, certainly not for any part of
Europe, and especially for the Zabinskis, whose lives were turned upside
down by the War---but then, so was everybody else's.
The first bucolic scenes, full of tranquility and playfulness,
highlight the Zabinkis' special relationships with their animals.
But Jan, for one, feels the dark clouds coming over the horizon.
He tries to get his wife to run away with their young son, because
he is afraid of what the Germans might do, but she refuses to even think
about it---until, of course, the bombs start falling, and then it's too
late. They're occupied before
they know it, and under German rule it quickly becomes clear that the Jews
are singled out for persecution, then relocation.
“The Warsaw Ghetto” was a very sad place where thousands of
people were crammed into very small accomodations with hardly subsistence
felt it was his duty to help any way he could.
And since the local Nazi official, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), had
decided to requisition his prize animals and send them to Berlin, anyway,
Jan suggests that they keep pigs in the zoo cages, as food for the German
soldiers, using the garbage from the Ghetto as the pigs' food.
Herr Heck thought that was a splendid ironic idea, but he didn't
realize that Jan was smuggling out residents of the Ghetto and bringing
them to the basement of his house to stay, until they could find a way out
of the country.
Now we live within the tense Zabinski household, as the frightened
refugees cower in the basement by day, and are able to emerge only at
midnight, when Antonina starts playing the piano, and only then do they
have some times where they can visit and eat and almost feel human again.
During the day, they're back in hiding, and if Antonina plays the
piano in the daylight, they know not to utter a single sound, which is
harder, of course, for the children.
It'll break your heart to watch the children from the Ghetto being
loaded on to the trains, because we know where those trains are going, and
what happens to the Jews when they get there.
(Director Niki Caro chooses not to show us any concentration camps,
but the implication is clear enough.)
As a side plot, Herr Heck begins to show a personal interest in
Antonina, which fills her with ambivalence, because she's loyal to her
husband, but she needs to keep him distracted, for the sake of all who
depend on her for the cool maintenance of fiery deceit.
Director Caro chooses not to use subtitles, just having everyone
speaking English, but sometimes with accents that work well, and sometimes
not so well. “The
Zookeeper's Wife” is not exactly a stroll in a flower garden on a Spring
day. But it's a well-crafted
reminder that out of the most horrible of circumstances, the human spirit
can rise to inspiring heights.