The Zookeeper’s Wife is an authentic yet hopeful portrayal of war [Review]

Although Hollywood elements creep into this war drama, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a rare Holocaust film that isn’t over-sentimental

Nicola Chan |

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Jessica Chastain did a marvellous job in showing Antonina's love for animals.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a second world war drama about husband and wife zookeepers Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) who risk their lives by hiding Jews in their zoo in Warsaw.

Inspired by a true story and based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, the movie opens with the sweet and motherly Antonina taking a bicycle tour around the zoo on a bright sunny day to greet her endearing animals. But the peace doesn’t last as the Nazis begin indiscriminately bombing Warsaw towards the end of 1939, killing many of the animals.

At the same time, Polish Jews were herded to, and isolated in, the Warsaw Ghetto. Seeing the human desolation and poverty in the ghetto, Antonina offers to secretly shelter her Jewish friend Magda Gross (Efrat Dor).

Realising they can help more than one person, the Zabinskis submit a fake proposal to Jan’s colleague and Adolf Hitler’s chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). They suggest turning their rather empty zoo into a pig farm to feed the occupying army; the real plan is to hide more mistreated Jews. Since Lutz secretly admires Antonina, he agrees and the couple begins to smuggle people into their zoo while pretending to collect garbage from the ghetto.

The two leads’ acting is convincing, though putting in typical Hollywood romance moments in a war drama may seem out of place. However, as an authentic representation of the Second world war, the film is worth praising for staying true to the documented historical setting and facts. The sets and costumes are true to the era, though Chastain’s consistently meticulous makeup and outfits are a bit ridiculous.

Yet, compared to most other war movies, The Zookeeper’s Wife is relatively less intense, violent, and horrifying. It is one of the rare Holocaust films that isn’t over-sentimental, but hopeful.