The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on Diane Ackerman’s biography of the same name, is both a unique and humbling story. Set in 1940s Warsaw, the film follows the lives of zookeepers Antonia and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh) who, with their young son Ryszard, watch their livelihood and city undergo the terrors of Nazi occupation.
Their well-established inner-city zoo is liquidated by the Nazis who, rather than destroy it, at the plea of the Zabinskis transform it into a pig farm. The couple embark upon a dangerous mission to rescue their Jewish neighbours who have been confined in the Warsaw Ghetto. The audience watches in pure suspense as Jan harbours men, women and children under heaps of pig-feed, which he collects from the Ghetto, in the zoo-house’s basement.
Firstly, it has to be said the film is a rather uncomfortable watch, and whilst in keeping with the real horrors of the Nazi occupation in Warsaw, there were places in the film which would blatantly traumatise any viewer. There is no doubt that a historical film should maintain a level of accuracy in depicting events, however parts of the narrative were directed with slight insensitivity when regarding the subject of the film.
The viewer is uncomfortable from the opening. The screen exposes a grisly scene depicting the massacre and panic of the zoo’s animals when the park is bombed by Nazi fighter-jets. The images of bloodied bears, severed limbs and uncontrollable rampages both distress and upset the viewer. Whilst unnerving, the cinematography of this scene is particularly effective as it directly contrasts the summery, paradise-like zoo presented just before, where Antonia rides around on her vintage bicycle and the animals, workers and visitors move harmoniously around her.
It is apparent that the victimisation of the zoo animals is somewhat echoed in the victimisation of Warsaw’s Jewish populace. The horrific scenes of the zoo massacre are not too dissimilar from the scenes of the Ghetto – a bloodied girl, distressed infants and frail individuals lying on the pavement. On the one hand, the similarities can be said to capture the loss of humanity and dehumanisation experienced by victimised groups during the Holocaust. However, I would argue that this is insensitive – the audience have already been traumatised by the animal massacre in the film’s opening. Therefore, they are likely to have become desensitised to extreme cruelty and barbaric treatments by the time the narrative has moved to the scenes in the Warsaw Ghetto. Likewise, there seems to be more explicit focus on the death and distress of the zoo animals, and particularly from Ryszard’s upset, which makes the persecution of the animals the more poignant element of the film.
At times, the Jewish people that the Zabinskis harbour in their home cannot be accessed by the viewer. It would have been effective if we were to hear their stories and their past narratives. Instead, most of the Jews remain anonymous during their residence at the zoo. The children’s drawings of the rescuees in the basement, in which they are given animal faces, and the use of the tiny rabbit that is given to Urszula (Shira Haas) to help her overcome her trauma, further proves the unequal focus on animals over Holocaust victims in this film.
The domestic setting inside the Zabinski’s house is, however, warming and relieving to watch. Antonia Zabinski is certainly characterised as admirable. Despite the colossal risk harbouring Jews poses to her family and herself, she sacrifices the cohesion of her marriage, her mental-wellbeing and her son’s safety to be a welcoming host to the victims. The motif of her piano playing throughout the film – a signal to the Jews in the basement that the Nazi’s soldiers have left the farm each evening – restores a sense of harmony to the agitated environment of the home. As well as a reassuring escapism from the grief and loss the Zabinski’s hospitality provided for the Jews, the emotional quality to the music reflects the humanity of Jan and Antonia, whose selfless acts of defiance against a terrible regime are presented most inspiringly.
The ending is a poignant one, and whilst the narrative and cinematic focus could have been directed more towards history, the sacrifice in the zookeepers’ stories makes this film one to experience.