Niki Caro (Whale Rider) confronts and challenges the viewer’s understanding and expectation of war and holocaust cinema in The Zookeeper’s Wife by capturing the much unrepresented and unsought female voice. As Caro puts it, the woman’s story has fallen through the cracks of history, but the film opens a new cinematic window into a different type of war, celebrating the voices of women, children and animals. In doing so, it reveals to audiences a completely authentic and unexperienced war story. The telling is unique in the way the film is directed, written, produced, inspired by and stars women. The film finds the lost female voice in war cinema, a genre that has traditionally been defined by the male experience.
Based on the true story of Antonina and Jan Żabiński, the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who rescued over 300 Jewish survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto. Caro draws on the narrative of American author Diane Ackerman who penned the book of the same name in 2007, inspired by the unpublished diary of Antonina.
The tale begins in the relative calm of 1939 where Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are tending the animals in their flourishing family Zoo. Their undisturbed and bucolic lives are quickly disturbed by the bombing of the Zoo which leaves the grounds utterly destroyed. Under the orders of Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the head of the Berlin Zoo and Hitler’s zoologist, the Zoo is to be shut down, the animals either spirited away for safekeeping in Berlin or shot in cold blood. The Żabiński’s persuade Heck to turn the Zoo into a pig farm, he obliges and sees the opportunity to use the Zoo as a playground for dabbling in animal eugenics to recreate the extinct auroch (a bison type creature). The Żabińskis orchestrate a bold plan to smuggle Jews from the ghetto buried under food scraps for the pigs. The Zoo becomes an unlikely sanctuary for the survivors who are hidden in cages and tunnels. A chilling game of hide-and-seek plays out as Antonina seeks to protect the refugees from the curious and menacing Heck.
The juxtaposition between the ‘domestic and the exotic’ is at the film’s heart. The four-legged and winged creatures play on the heartstrings of the audience, their innocence stands as a startling contrast to the war that is raging outside the window. Antonina loves animals because “you look in their eyes and know exactly what’s in their hearts,” a simple transparency of character she can’t find in the ’40’s political climate where Nazi secret agendas and underground resistance movements infiltrate her world. While Caro is intent on telling the story of Antonina, that of a mother, wife and animal lover the film doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed and brutality of war. It is bold in the way it confronts its audience with blood splattered walls, piercing gun shots, animal carcasses dribbling blood onto dirt paths and a young Jewish girl emerging beaten and bloodied after being raped by two Nazi soldiers. It does not hesitate in creating gut-wrenching tension, at times only a thin floorboard or wooden door separates Heck from the truth and makes for a nail biting view. Tension, verging on fear lies at the heart of the relationship between Heck and Antonina, and it is often in these unsettling moments the audience is most confronted by a woman’s sacrifice.
Much of the films sentimentality is bound up in Chastain’s portrayal of Antonina. She is instinctive in the way she plays the role; fearlessly handling lion cubs and seamlessly applying herself as the maternal and brave heroine.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is not the first holocaust film to feature the female heroine. The Book Thief (2013) follows the story of young Liesel Meminger and the iconic ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ (1959) documents the tragic experiences of the Frank family, such tales of courage and adversity during World War ll are widely documented in holocaust cinema. The Zookeeper’s Wife contains exactly the type of suspense and drama expected for it’s genre, but it transcends in it’s expectations of entertainment.
Living in an age where xenophobia and nationalism appear to be on the rise, Caro believes the film is unintentionally contemporary. People uprooted from their homes and native countries, living in camps enduring unimaginable heartache and fear doesn’t feel like such a distant story to a modern viewer, in fact it is all too familiar.