Amidst appalling animal cruelty in their own oasis within a city compound comes a heroic true tale of a compassionate couple fighting for the survival of the Polish Jewish community at risk of sectarian slaughter within war torn Nazi occupied Warsaw, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” one of the most emotive & touching motion pictures of the moment & of this terrible time in history. But what made it so moving and who within the accomplished actor line-up amazed the most?
Is it just us, or are the lion’s share of screenplays of late set in either the first or the second world war? Well the last three films we have seen have, first “Their Finest”, then “The Promise” and now “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, the fascination about war in the eyes of motion picture producers never ceasing to amaze us, albeit that in each of these three, the story they have told is different. However, what they have in common is prolific portrayals to sides of both world war’s conflicts that we haven’t either seen before or known about, “Their Finest” an entertaining account of life behind the lens & the making of morale boosting movies during the blitz, while “The Promise” unearthed the essentially untold on the silver screen story of the Ottoman empire government’s genocide of 1.5 million Armenians. And in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” we have a formidable film that tells the true tale of the persecution of Polish Jews in the Nazi occupied Warsaw from 1940 to 1945. Centring on Jan & Antonia Zabinski (played by Johan Heldenbergh & Jessica Chastain respectively) who own & run the city’s Miejski Ogród zoo, the opening scenes of their interaction with the animals is just one of the many charms of this majestic movie. Yet this amidst the contemptable cruelty that is meted out on these defenceless creatures, as well as innocent humans in what was, without doubt, the most callous of conflicts we can think of. Indeed, in a similar way to “The Promise”, what this truly phenomenal motion picture purveys, is an indelible insight & authentic account of the atrocities that, in the case of the former film, were of the Armenians, while here it was the far more contemptfull callousness that was the Holocaust. Furthermore, the scenes when Jewish men, women & children were first rounded up & then confined in a Nazi constructed ghetto within the walls of Warsaw and forced to wear white arm bands with the star of David etched onto them, were harrowing enough, but when they were herded onto train tucks like cattle, we watching in the knowledge that they were destined for concentration come extermination camps such as Auschwitz or Belzec, turned us to tears to the extent that, for the first time since “Fences”, we were visibly shaking & our eyes were streaming as we departed the cinema.
But while we mention both “Their Finest” & “The Promise” in with this perfectly pitched & profoundly moving masterpiece, the mere mention of them is as far as it goes, as “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is in a totally different league and on so many levels imaginable, as throughout the film, you get the sensation that you are living through this terrible time. And we credit this to many elements, from the magnitude of the scriptwriting to the cinematography as well as the settings, but most of all the acting, whether it from headliners Jessica Chastain & Daniel Bruhl, or the lesser known child & adult actors portraying the many parts with such emotion as to create the most powerful empathy we have seen in a war film in many a year. Indeed it is this emotion & the emotiveness of the subject that scores this screenplay so highly in our estimation, that and the fact that it not only sticks closely to the non-fictional book of the same name, on which it is based, but also takes into close account, the content of Antonia Zabinski’s diaries, ones which were published in Poland in the 1960’s under the title “Ludzie i zwierz?ta” (translated as People and Animals), so well-known documents in Antonia’s home country and invaluable to “The Zookeeper’s Wife” screenplay producers & writers. Moreover, it is this love of animals in Jan & his wife that resonate with us, this added to their unstinting support in rescuing their fellow Polish from persecution that adds even more gravitas to this already accomplished account of this terrible time, the insight into the risks they both took and the threats they lived under while trying to hold onto their zoo, pretty much devoid of any of their prized animals after the Nazi invasion, utterly compelling. As for who stood out the most in this movie, it is difficult to lay a hat on any one individual, as each person played their part in making this the phenomenal picture it was/is, but if we had to single someone out, it would be Jessica Chastain, she again scoring highly as she did in “Zero Dark Thirty” & particularly in “A Most Violent Year”, while Daniel Bruhl was compellingly convincing as Nazi officer & zoologist, Lutz Heck. But as good as he is, Chastain is better and shows her class as an accomplished actress & ultimate spotlight star of this superb screenplay, while despite “The Zookeeper’s Wife” receiving mixed reviews & criticism, some saying it lacked impact and was too mild mannered, we couldn’t disagree more, rather extoll in its excellence in all departments. (DISCO MATT)