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The Zookeeper’s Wife is a lushly shot movie about resisting Nazi cruelty

Jessica Chastain stars alongside a host of zoo animals in an adaptation of the bestselling book.

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife
Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife
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Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Both a lush historical tale and a real-life fable, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an account of Warsaw during the Nazi occupation that makes a strong case for a simple truth: inhuman brutality can only be counteracted by steady compassion and kindness.

Based on the nonfiction book by naturalist Diane Ackerman — which in turn draws on the journals of Antonina Żabińska, played by Jessica Chastain in the film — The Zookeeper’s Wife has a lot in common with conventional Hollywood World War II dramas, but is elevated by the simple novelty of adding animals. Most of the film is literally set in a zoo, which houses creatures great and small: buffalo, rabbits, elephants, a tiger, a camel that trots around, and a lot more.

The animals are the backdrop to the movie’s theme that all creatures deserve dignity and respect, and that humans can be both the kindest and the cruelest animals of them all. It contrasts steady love and constant empathy with the sort of deformed character that would lead men to pen up and eventually exterminate millions of humans simply for being Jewish. Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider; McFarland, USA), The Zookeeper’s Wife is a simple plea for compassion, beautifully told.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on a true story that spans World War II in Warsaw

It’s 1939, and Antonina lives with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and their young son on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo, where Jan serves as head zoologist. And while Jan is in charge, it’s clear to everyone (including him) that Antonina is the gifted one, able to calm the animals and seemingly commune with them all, no matter the species.

Johan Heldenbergh in The Zookeeper’s Wife
Johan Heldenbergh in The Zookeeper’s Wife.
Focus Features

Nobody knows the war is about to break out, but Hitler’s star is rising, as is the star of his chief zoologist, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). At a party, Heck tells the story of having to kill an animal that was acting aggressively, and Antonina winces — a small exchange that tells you almost everything you need to know about what’s to come.

Which is, of course, the war. Once Nazi forces arrive to occupy Poland, the Jewish inhabitants are slowly marginalized — first made to wear identification marks, then herded into an overcrowded ghetto, and, eventually, sent to their deaths in concentration camps.

Jan and Antonina are horrified, and know that something must be done. They begin to contemplate how to take care of their friends and neighbors, starting out tentatively at first — having a friend stay with them — and then more boldly.

When the bombing raids start, the zoo takes hits, as does its animals. Heck takes the prize stock — the cheetahs and tigers and elephants — to Germany for “safekeeping,” which seems at first to Antonina to be a compassionate gesture. But as the war wears on, she starts to understand Heck’s true nature, his capacity for empathy seeming to melt away while the situation for animals and humans alike grows more dire. Antonina and Jan, meanwhile, keep fighting covertly for years for their Jewish neighbors in the only ways they can. But anything could go wrong at any time.

In The Zookeeper’s Wife, brutality toward humans is a slippery slope

The Zookeeper’s Wife has the sweep of an epic, covering the period from before the war to after it with grace, and Chastain is magnetic at its center. Visually sumptuous and unabashedly romantic, the film likely idealizes the period a bit — it’s hard to imagine a character like Antonina maintaining a simple but gorgeous wardrobe, and even the war-desolated zoo is beautiful — but it makes a strong contrast with the desolation and dinginess of the city outside the zoo’s walls. (It’s a little strange to hear the actors speaking in English with Polish and German accents, but excusable given its target market.)

Jessica Chastain, Efrat Dor, Shira Haas, and Timothy Radford in The Zookeeper's Wife 
Jessica Chastain, Efrat Dor, Shira Haas, and Timothy Radford in The Zookeeper's Wife.
Focus Features

Part of the film’s sustained interest is the tension that’s always at the heart of films about those working to resist the cruelty of the Nazi regime: Will they get caught, or not? Every footstep and surprise could spell disaster. The courageous main characters, risking their lives for virtual strangers are ordinary heroes — and it’s even more heartening to remember that heroes like them were all over Europe during the war.

The Zookeeper’s Wife also benefits from its central metaphor, which seems to write itself. The Nazis did their hideous work of oppressing, then exterminating Jews by making of them something less than human — something more like animals. They methodically changed the way they conceived of a whole nation of people and gradually allowed themselves, and their collaborators, to think of the Jews as something different, something other, something expendable, some thing. History shows: Most people have trouble treating a fellow human barbarically, but if you can trick yourself into thinking they’re not really like you, it gets a lot easier.

Jan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife
Jan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife.
Focus Features

To this point, the film sets up a sharp visual contrast between the dirty, crowded, frightening ghetto into which the Jews are forced and the relatively clean and open zoo in which the animals live. When animals are permitted a more comfortable home than humans, what does that mean about a culture?

But as the war continues, both the animals and the Jews experience more senseless cruelty at the hands of the soldiers (and, eventually, Dr. Heck). The Zookeeper’s Wife paints the moral slope as a slippery, gradual thing that anyone’s capable of sliding down.

The deep love between Jan and Antonina, and their steadfast efforts to help their neighbors — so recently made to feel like animals by the Nazis — to regain their dignity through not just safe haven but empathy makes for a beautiful film (if not a terribly morally complex one). The Zookeeper’s Wife is a simple historical tale that serves as both a fresh reminder of the ease with which we dehumanize one another and the kind of care that honors life.

The Zookeeper’s Wife opens in theaters on March 31.