Animals are predictable and people are not, says the Zookeeper’s wife. When you look into the eyes of an animal you know exactly what it is feeling and thinking. Humans are different, and we get to know just how much at the Warsaw Zoo, on the 1st of September, 1939, when the Germans invade Poland.
In the 1930s, Warsaw had one of the finest zoos in Europe, run by Dr. Jan Żabiński and his wife, Antonina. During the Nazi occupation, many of the animals were killed by direct hits from the bombing of the city, but a concerned German Zoologist, later known as Hitler’s Zoologist, Dr. Lutz Heck, arrived to transport the best surviving species to Germany. He apparently tried, unsuccessfully, to breed older and extinct species from the ones he had, in order to demonstrate that the best and the finest could be resurrected, and a purer form of the animal could be preserved. Perhaps he believed that the same could be done with a more complex species, Homo sapiens of the Aryan persuasion.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is the story of how Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain), used the professional relationship between fellow Zoologists to make the Nazis unsuspecting of their clandestine activity in transporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the safety of the extensive grounds of the now empty zoo. The Żabińskis managed to do this right through the war till 1945, when the Germans were defeated. Based on a book by the same name, this film is able to beautifully isolate aspects of the human soul that make each one of us so different, not just from animals, but from one other.
The performances, specially Jessica Chastain’s, are all top notch, but the most interesting part of the film is how it uses close-ups of the human face to deconstruct personality and thought process; perhaps even using it to decipher the soul underneath. The weakness of Dr. Heck (Daniel Brühl) is Mrs. Żabiński, with whom he has clearly fallen in love. This has made him trusting, even credulous, of the feelings she consistently purports to express for him. More importantly, as the Nazi officer in charge of the zoo, his passion for the zookeeper’s wife has caused him to overlook any signs of unusual activities at the premises, and any signs that her husband, the zookeeper, might be part of the traitorous Polish resistance.
The husband watches the Nazi visiting his wife and making advances at her, and his fine actor’s face reveals the agony within, but he keeps silent. The wife is nauseated by the constant touching and feeling of Dr. Heck, but she responds to him and, on one occasion, even passionately kisses him to distract him from the sounds made by the children hidden in the basement. At each moment of poignancy, we have the close-ups of faces, as if to say that they may often be duplicitous, but it is the only book we have to the soul; to the struggle within, and, if there is one, to the moral being.
Ultimately, The Zookeeper’s Wife is fiction, even though it is based on fact. What the movie is able to do so beautifully is to construct three characters, to give them difficult choices, and to leave them to their dilemmas. The maker of the film then lets us watch how creatures so different from the straightforward animals at the zoo, arrive at a junction in their lives and choose to take the very abrupt turn that could almost certainly lead to their own death. Instead of taking the safer road to life and living.