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Moving 'Zookeeper's Wife' puts the Holocaust in sobering perspective

Posted March 31

 (Deseret Photo)

“THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE” — 3 stars — Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl; PG-13 (thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking); in general release

Based on the book by Diane Ackerman, which was in turn based on a true story, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is the powerful account of a woman who spearheaded an Underground Railroad equivalent for the Holocaust, and a vivid metaphor for the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people.

Set in Warsaw, director Niki Caro’s film begins just before Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, a hard-working wife, mother and animal lover. Her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), runs the Warsaw Zoo, and Antonina’s expertise with the animals is his secret weapon.

But the Zabinski’s idyllic life is literally blown to smithereens once the Germans invade, killing most of the zoo’s animals and repurposing the facility as an armory. A zoologist colleague from Berlin named Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) offers to take care of Antonina and Jan’s surviving animals, promising to return them at the conclusion of a war he assures will be quick.

While the Zabinskis struggle to hold on to the zoo, eventually allowing it to be used to raise pigs and host Heck’s genetic experimentation on oxen, their Jewish neighbors are herded into a Warsaw ghetto. After initially hiding a family friend, Antonina and Jan’s efforts eventually grow into a full-blown human smuggling operation that uses the zoo as a waystation.

Like many movies set during the Holocaust, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is built on the tension of the ever-present Nazi eye. Jan smuggles Jewish refugees out of the ghetto under mounds of garbage intended for his hogs, hoping to get through checkpoints undetected. Antonina tries to give her guests some semblance of comfort as they hide in her basement, while occupying soldiers work on the zoo grounds outside.

Heck provides a special problem for Antonina. He insists that he isn’t a politician, but wastes no time embracing his new position in the Nazi ranks, and his sense of entitlement leads to romantic advances toward Antonina that strain her relationship with her husband.

The parallels “The Zookeeper’s Wife” draws between the zoo animals and its Jewish refugees are sobering and instructive. Soon after the initial bombing, Heck indicates that the zoo is to be “liquidated,” and later the same term is applied to the Warsaw ghetto. We see soldiers callously shooting innocent animals in their cages, and the horror we feel is all the more magnified when they do the same to human beings later on.

Though “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a PG-13 film, Caro, who most recently helmed “McFarland, USA,” does not shy from the horrific realities of her story. Though the content never gets graphic enough to merit an R-rating, Caro gives the audience just enough information to make many scenes heartbreaking, even shocking, to watch.

The cruelty is two-dimensional — there is no effort to understand or justify the wickedness we see — and the audience is largely left on its own to decide what to take from the experience, whether to be inspired by the bravery of the Zabinskis, repulsed by man’s inhumanity to man, or cautioned about what similar impulses might be at work in our day.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” may not rank with the best of its genre, but as a unique perspective on the Holocaust, it is a moving celebration of the people who fought against it.

“The Zookeeper's Wife” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking; running time: 124 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.

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