Friday, March 31, 2017

Holocaust tale ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ exudes hope among tears

By Steve Crum
Emotionally wrenching in many ways, The Zookeeper’s Wife succeeds as a fact-based story of love and perseverance. It echoes Schindler’s List, although not nearly so graphic, in depictions of Nazi atrocities against the Jews. The zoo setting is the difference here, so be prepared for one particular sequence involving Nazi soldiers rifling and machine gunning zoo animals. It is a stomach turning minute.
Knowing that the film involves Nazis taking over a zoo during WWII, and not having read Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction best seller of the same name, I had misguided expectations. Over 50 years ago, I had seen Hannibal Brooks, the 1969 Oliver Reed-starring movie about a Nazi-run Munich zoo. British POW “Hannibal” kidnaps an Asian elephant to protect the creature from Allied bombing of that zoo. Compelling as Hannibal Brooks might sound, rest assured that The Zookeeper’s Wife has little in common.
Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider; North Country) and adapted by Angela Workman, The Zookeeper’s Wife recounts the keepers of Poland’s Warsaw Zoo, which still exists, in dealing with the German invasion on Sept. 1, 1939 and its extended aftermath. The story encompasses the city of Warsaw as well, particularly the persecution and containment of Jews in the so-called Warsaw Ghetto. (By the way, most of the filming was in Prague.) 
The film opens weeks before the invasion wherein zookeeper Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) are hosting a cocktail party on zoo grounds with friends and colleagues. Among the group is Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a German zoologist. Soon after the invasion, Heck shows up at the zoo’s gate, sporting his Nazi SS uniform. He has become an oppressive foe. (Remember how the young Rolfe turned Nazi in The Sound of Music?) To make matters worse, Heck lusts for—yep—the zookeeper’s wife. 
It is Antonina, in fact, who is the central character of the story. It is she who we first see bicycling on the zoo grounds with one of her many pets, a baby dromedary, freely galloping along in back of her. It is Antonina who we see tenderly help a frantic mother elephant care for its newborn. It is also Antonina who, along with her husband, devises a scheme to rescue hundreds of Jews from the ghetto. In the secretive process, she must also keep her ex-friend Nazi at sexual bay. It is a daunting task fraught with risk. 
Chastain’s acting is impressive, as are Heldenbergh’s, Brühl’s, and Shira Haas as the suffering Jewish teen, Urszula. 
Running six minutes over two hours, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a tearful reminder of the Holocaust and one’s will to survive. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B

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