Directed by Niki Caro
Screenplay by Angela Workman
based on the book by Diane Ackerman
Kendall Square Cinema
With Jessica Chastain (Antonina Zabinski), Johan Heldenbergh (Jan Zabinski), Daniel Brühl (Lutz Heck), Timothy Radford (Ryszard Zabinski, Younger), Efrat Dor (Magda Gross), Iddo Goldberg (Maurycy Fraenkel), Shira Haas (Urszula), Michael McElhatton (Jerzyk), Val Maloku (Ryszard Zabinski, Older), Martha Issová (Regina Kenigswein)
Living in Warsaw, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), a zookeeper and his wife, Antonina (Jessica Chastain), totally devoted to the creatures in their zoo, have their lives completely upset by the Nazi occupation. With their realization of the horrific treatment of the Jews, they begin to find ways to shelter people while trying to avoid Nazi surveillance. The omnipresent Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a German officer and a zoo professional himself, takes a shine to Antonina and while coming around to check on her makes for endless tension among those who take shelter there.
This affecting story which covers the length of the war from the German occupation of Poland in 1939 to the end of the occupation in 1945, and includes the history of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, gives a vivid sense of the courageous acts undertaken by a couple of non-Jewish Poles who sought to assist Jews under threat of extermination by the Nazis.
The story is based in fact, the Zabinskis are honored at Israel’s Yad Vashem in their Hall of the Righteous which includes non-Jews who went out of their way to save Jews during the Holocaust.
The uniqueness of the setting provides a persuasive background for this story of rescue. The zookeepers are naturally, as shown in a few striking scenes, completely devoted to their animals. The opening scene shows Antonia lying down with her son Ryszard (Timothy Radford) and are accompanied by what looks at first like a dog or two until one realizes they are lion cubs. Antonina also assists very courageously in the birth of an elephant which is in distress, not only indicating her courage and compassion for living things, but her talent at navigating threatening situations.
This talent comes into play in her dealings with the unsavory Heck who hovers ever so closely and constantly puts her in the difficult situation of requiring to seem to give affectionate support to this invasive Nazi officer and maintaining her dignity.
Chastain manages all of these elements quite convincingly. Though the film is in English, her Polish accent is persuasive and her emotional navigation of the available alternatives believable as well.
There is nothing particularly surprising about this film. Its script and technique, though consistent and compelling, is not at all unexpected; the drama unfolds fairly predictably. Nevertheless, there is effective suspense regarding the hidden Jews, the omnipresent Nazis, and the various sorts of smuggling necessary to keep the operation going.
Johan Heldenbergh, as the zookeeper, is earnest and compelling, and heroic in a down-to-earth, not showy, way. His and Chastain’s chemistry works beautifully and their vocational partnership as well as dutiful romance is compelling.
Daniel Brühl is a sleek and sleazy Nazi who initially demonstrates knowledge about animals but who exhibits less and less sensitivity to them as time wears on. (Brühl recently played the much more sympathetic role of a journalist on the right side in Woman in Gold (2015), the courtroom drama about retrieving a famous Klimt painting that had been seized by the Nazis.)
A terrifying scene with the older Ryszard (Val Maloku) caps the penultimate drama and Maloku, Chastain and Brühl carry it off with appropriately gut-wrenching panache.
Shira Haas, as Urszula, a young girl terrorized by Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, does a convincing job of horror and the ensuing healing that comes along with close and careful tending.
This treatment of this small but significant piece of Holocaust history is straightforward but well-done. It does not use particularly innovative techniques to tell its story but it does so quite well, and movingly.