Niki Caro Tells The Story Of The Zookeeper’s Wife

John Fiorino shows the highlights and downfalls of the brave story of a couple in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Courtesy of:

John Fiorino, Entertainment Editor

World War II shook the world both literally and figuratively. Bombs falling, tanks rolling and guns blazing made most of Europe a battleground. When the Nazi’s invaded Poland in 1939, shops are looted, ghettos erected and families are separated. Based on the non-fiction bestseller of the same name which was based on diaries of Antonina Zabinska, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” tells the true story of Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife, Antonina, (Jessica Chastain) who have a zoo in Warsaw where they rescue and house Jews from the Nazi occupation.

Surviving the initial bombings, the couple help hide a Jewish scientist’s significant insect collection as well as a friend, Magda Gross (Efrat Dor). They realize that they can house Jews and save lives from the occupation as long as they move into the zoo at night unnoticed. Antonina and her husband urge the head of the Berlin Zoo and Hitler’s Zoologist, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), to keep the zoo open as a pig farm and food supply for the soldiers. Lutz Heck agrees also in large part to do with his experimentation of cross-breeding certain animals in an attempt to bring back instinct, ancient beasts.

Throughout the film there can be some dark and disturbing scenes. Ultimately, the decision to include those scenes by director, Niki Caro, was a smart one. Caro tells the story to the fullest and does not sugarcoat any part. She has been heavily involved in the TV industry in New Zealand prior to this film, predominantly with drama series, short films and documentaries.

With her experience, Caro used a minimalistic approach for “The Zookeeper’s Wife” in terms of music and acoustics. Through most of the movie, the sounds of trucks and tanks are heard, rather than slow dramatic music. The suspense that resulted from the sounds of Nazi soldiers slowly walking on wooden floors is a perfect example of her less-is-more approach.

Chastain was stupendous in her role as the wife and essentially mother for the children that stay with her. In one scene, she shows her maternal instincts in whatever way they are needed. Then, in contrast, she can be manipulative and sneaky, proving she will do anything to get her job done. Chastain, who was made to have a more innocent approach in the movie, was the right choice for this. Casting could not have been better in her case and the makeup crew did quite the job as well. As for others, it was disappointing not seeing more of her husband’s character arc.

Heldenbergh carried a veteran type of presence with him as the husband and role of protector. While he definitely had his fair share of time in the scenes, it was disappointing to not see more of his involvement other than the role he was fulfilling with his wife. The couple face turmoil and trying times largely due to the task at hand. However, it is a shame that Caro did not expand on Jan Zabinski’s role with the local resistance forces. With the film’s era set in World War II, it was underwhelming to see only two brief war scenes, despite the focus of the story being on the family and their zoo.

What Caro did right with the lighting is letting the role of natural light play a major factor. The scenes at night were very dark due to their being little to no lights around the zoo. In the tunnels of the zoo, only partial sunlight or moonlight would peer in through grates making these scenes very suspenseful. When Antonina would walk into the Nazi offices, the color red would be vibrant. Jutting out not only from the flags but also the carpets and other decor certainly made it feel like a Nazi government building.

Some scenes are heartbreaking, and animal lovers take a sigh of relief, no animals were harmed in the making of this film. For history lovers, movie connoisseurs and for the casual movie goer, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a must see. The plot will leave the viewer on the edge of their seats as the constant thought of being caught is in the air. With lighting, acoustics and the constant pressure from the Nazis all increasing the suspense, one will have to see it to believe it.