Based on a true story, The Zookeeper’s Wife follows the tale of the Warsaw zoo and its owners, the Zabinskis, during the Second World War. After the occupation of Warsaw, Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan Zabinski’s (Johan Heldenbergh) zoo is liquidated and over-taken by chief Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). To fight back against the Nazi’s, the Zabinski’s covertly join the Resistence and harbour over 300 Jews from the ghetto to their zoo, and on to safe houses, saving them from the extermination camps.
This is an incredibly gut-wrenching film. The imagery of WWII, which has been endlessly overworked and thus somewhat nullified in its affect, has been made refreshingly poignant with the inclusion of the animals. Drawing parallels between the cruel treatment of Jews and the zoo’s animals, the callous slaughter of life, gives this film a unique edge. It also looks at eugenics under Lutz’ attempt to bring back a long-extinct breed of bison through selective breeding.
The film covers the length of the war, and most of the time jumps are clearly marked with subtitles providing the date, making it easy for the audience to follow along with the progression of the story. However, sudden and unmarked jumps in time and plot towards the end of the film are then confusing for the audience, diluting the film’s emotional impact in some scenes.
Chastain’s attempt at a Polish accent misses its mark, but this is something that most Australian audiences can probably overlook to enjoy the film. However, this film could very easily have been entirely in Polish and German, with native actors and subtitles, to enhance the film’s realism.
The film looks at the way women negotiate their position amongst men, and particularly within the context of the war. It exalts women’s resilience, courage and ingenuity, and it’s refreshing to see a war film that exalts women’s struggle over men’s.
The pleasing visuals and lighting in this film make it strangely beautiful despite its horrific content. I believe this film should have been content ranked higher than PG 13+, due to the exceedingly disturbing implications of rape and on-screen slaughter. Overall, the film is emotionally heavy, yet heart-warming in its truth. I rate it 8/10. Bring tissues.