Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife is 2017’s First Oscar Worthy Film.
Films that are centered around the Holocaust are very common nowadays. These types of films are usually released around Award Season and typically are a big hit with audiences as well as critics. I honestly have been avoiding most of the recent Holocaust based films, the last one I saw in theaters was The Book Thief in 2013, because I feel like Hollywood is trying to milk this horrific event for all it’s worth. Luckily, the trailer for The Zookeeper’s Wife sold me instantly. I remembered briefly learning about Antonina and Jan Zabinski and was somewhat shocked that their story was never told on the big screen before now. In the film, Jan is played by Johan Heldenbergh and his wife Antonina is played by Jessica Chastain.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is an incredible true story of the Zabinskis’ and how this married couple risked their own lives to save hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children during the German Invasion of Warsaw, Poland. The film opens in 1939 where we meet Jan and Antonina running the Warsaw Zoo. They are passionate zookeepers who love and adore animals. On September 1, 1939, Jan and Antonina’s lives, are changed forever when a German Zoologist named Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) takes control of their animals as the Nazi invasion begins. The rest of the film takes place over the course of six years and showcasing how this one brave couple managed to become extraordinary heroes.
I won’t even try to sugarcoat it, the main reason why I wanted to see the Zookeeper’s Wife was that it stars Jessica Chastain, who in my humble opinion, is easily one of the most incredible and talented women in Hollywood. I swear with every role, Chastain just gets better and better as an actress. In this film, Chastain becomes Antonina Zabinski. She embraces the material with all her heart and soul which you can clearly see while watching this film. As a viewer, you feel every single emotion that she conveys on-screen. I found it nearly impossible not to be amazed by Chastain’s performance. Antonina Zabinski is a remarkable woman, and Chastain performance serves not only as a tribute to her incredible story but reminds us that there are real life superheroes in the world.
While Chastain’s performance is all-around amazing, there is no denying that her on-screen counterpart Johan Heldenbergh is just as remarkable. Besides the film Belgica, which I don’t remember much about, I haven’t seen anything else that Heldenbergh has been a part of. With that being said, I was completely taken aback by Heldenbergh’s performance as Jan. I found his performance to be filled with raw emotion and honesty, Jan was the person that took a ton of risk as he managed to bring the men, women, and children from the Warsaw Ghetto into his home.
There are so many powerful moments that it is almost impossible to narrow them down. However, nearly all the scenes with Urszula (Shira Haas) had me on the verge of tears. We are first introduced to Urszula when Jan enters the ghetto and attempts to save the lives of several young children. Urszula is shown being dragged down an alleyway by two German officers. As you expect something bad occurs, and the next thing we see is Urszula bleeding and crying walking down the street along. Jan sees her and immediately goes to help. This scene is incredibly heart-wrenching and powerful.
There is another scene where Antonina is trying to connect with Urszula after she is rescued by Jan and brought back to their home. Antonina speaks of people and makes mention that you can never tell whether a person is good or bad. She then proceeds to discuss why she loves animals so much and how their eyes showcase their true feelings. There is just something about the way that this particular scene is captured that makes it such an emotional moment. It filled with such raw emotion while director Niki Caro intimately captures this moment on-camera.
Daniel Brühl‘s as Lutz is terrifying. For playing such a deplorable person, Brühl manages to make the role his own and not go overboard with the performance. I admire that Bruhl doesn’t try to make Lutz into this overly evil movie character but instead manages to make the entire audience feel uncomfortable every time that he comes on-screen. It is easy for actors to make a character unlikable but when you have someone that is based on a real person, you need to make such you don’t go overboard with the performance. I think Brühl along with Heldenbergh and Chastain all deliver Oscar-caliber performances.
Without going into great detail, I would like to point out that every supporting performance in the film was stellar no matter how big or small of the role. This is one of those rare films where you can tell almost everyone involved felt passionate about the source material and handles the material with much love and dedication. Screenwriter Angela Workman does a tremendous job adapting Diane Ackerman‘s fantastic book. You can tell that Workman spent a lot of time making sure that the most important elements of the book were part of the film.
Director Niki Caro has perfectly crafted a beautiful and emotionally powerful film. The scenes of the zoo are expertly captured and feel like a work of art. I am impressed that Caro as a filmmaker didn’t go for cheap visuals to provoke a reaction from the audience. Instead, Caro spends time showing the buildup and aftermath of the events. The scenes with the animals being shot and killed are not shown but rather heard. By handling these moments without visuals allow for audiences to use their imaginations, therefore, making these scenes even more powerful for the viewer. This is a beautiful looking film about humanity both the light side and dark side.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is the first Oscar-worthy film of 2017. Chastain, Heldenbergh, and Brühl all deliver powerful performances that are without a doubt some of the best, if not the best of their careers. The Zookeeper’s Wife is an emotional experience with powerful storytelling and plenty of heart. This is the type of film that reminds people of all ages to look for the good in each another while playing tribute to Zabinskis’ who put their own lives in jeopardy in order to help others. This is an unforgettable film and easily one of the best films about Holocaust ever made.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s rating for The Zookeeper’s Wife is a 9 out of 10.