The Zookeeper’s Wife

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The Zookeeper's Wife

Director: Niki Caro

Based on the nonfiction book, ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ written by: Diane Ackerman

Screenplay: Angela Workman

Producers: Jeff Abberley, Jamie Patricof, Diane Miller Levin, Kim Zubick

Cinematographer: Andrij Parekh

Music: Harry Gregson-Williams

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Iddo Goldberg, Efrat Dor, Shira Haas, Daniel Brühl.

Based on a true story, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a film set in Warsaw, Poland during WWII.

The screenplay (Angela Workman) was adapted from Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book, created from the diary of the lead character, Antonia Żabińska (Jessica Chastain), the wife of a zookeeper who becomes so much more.

This is a tragic story where Antonia and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabińska (Johan Heldenbergh) shelter and hide and ultimately save the lives of almost 300 Jews at the risk of their own.

Set in a zoo, cinematographer, Andrij Parekh shows the animals from elephants, to adolescent camels to soft rabbits to tigers in all their grandeur, a cinematic device that adds another dimension contrasting the innocence of the animals against the evil of humanity.

I struggle with war films.  I find the violence and cruelty extremely difficult to watch because war films give a glimpse, just a tiny window into what actually happened to people living through the horror.

Poland was torn apart during WWII, lying between Germany and Russia.  The war, by its end, killing 6 million of the Polish population.

By focussing on the Żabińska family, the audience is given insight into how people coped when faced with such senseless violence.

Dr. Janusz Korczak (Arnost Goldflam), a detained Jewish teacher, reasons with Antonia by asking her: with their worlds turned up-side-down, how are they supposed to know how to think or feel?

The film asks the question: how do you stop the fear from taking over? How do you risk your life and your family to save others?

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story l haven’t heard before and there were aspects of the film such as the Polish uprising that spoke of events highlighting the true courage of the population.  And although I find war films upsetting, I was glad to have the opportunity to see, hear and listen.

The soundtrack (music by Harry Gregson-Williams) is largely orchestral and atmospheric, but there’s also Antonia playing the piano that shows a tenderness in the character, the piano music heralding safety or danger.

Because the film is based on the diary writing of Antonia, there’s a depth where fear can turn to anger, where love can turn to hate and where the vulnerable become the strong.

There’s complexity shown where good people must lie to survive and those who can love can also exterminate.

There’s good and bad in all people and showing how Antonia, a tender, seemingly vulnerable woman shows inner strength to take such risks is realistically portrayed by actress, Jessica Chastain.

Seeing Jessica in another recent film, Miss Sloane, playing an emotionless character, to the extent of sociopathic behaviour, and seeing the gentle character shown here, hints at the exceptional range of Chastain, and I admit, I’m fast becoming a fan.

And Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), although a sometimes hateful character, was also a very believable character; Daniel Brühl, you’ll also remember from Quentin Tarantino’s, Inglourious Basterds also playing a Nazi suffering from unrequited love.

I had trouble with the English-speaking characters with a German or Polish accent, who were supposed to be, German or Polish.  But I can see the care and respect given to portray this story by showing courage and beauty but also the raw and confronting reality.

There’s a risk in making another WWII film as there’s been so many in the past, but The Zookeeper’s Wife is a moving heart-breaker with a point of difference with the addition of animals into the cast which added tragedy but also hope.

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