Now playing at Old Greenbelt Theatre.
Parsing our relationship to animals is one way to glimpse ourselves in a mirror. Pet owners solemnly swear that their animal companions understand them better than other people do. Internet memes Grumpy Cat, with her wizened little scowl, and philosopher cat Henri, Le Chat Noir, allow us to mock political figures, popular culture icons, and the absurdity of modern life, although we know, don’t we, that these Internet memes really aren’t like their online personas. But if we are able to imbue animals with human characteristics, emotions, or intentions, the obverse is also true. We immediately liken those that we scorn, dislike, or look down upon to animals—or even vermin. And how easy it is to mistreat, deport, or exterminate a group of people whom we regard as less than human.
These contradictions in our coexistence with animals lie at the heart of director Niki Caro’s latest film, The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on the World War II experiences of Jan Zabinski, director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonina. Antonina’s diaries served as source material for the film and Diane Ackerman’s book about the Zabinskis.
In the summer of 1939, Antonina (Jessica Chastain) is idyllically happy in her animal kingdom. Her son sleeps peacefully with two white lion cubs, and she bicycles through the sun-dappled sanctuary and joyfully greets the zebras and giraffes. At a dinner party with a distinguished German zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) (more about him later) she races outside and resuscitates a newborn baby elephant to the applause of the dinner guests and the undisguised admiration of Heck. Of course this Eden is doomed when the Nazis invade Poland in September 1939.
Heck, now in a Wehrmacht uniform and openly leering at Antonina, returns to Warsaw and offers to take the choicest breeding animals—those that weren’t bombed—to Berlin to “save” them. He summarily shoots the inferior creatures, including a beautiful bald eagle. I am not giving anything away to say that Jan and Antonina entered into their own risky “savings” program, hiding as many Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto as they could conceal in Jan’s van, which regularly traveled to the ghetto to bring out scraps for the pig farm that the Nazis permitted the Zabinskis to run. The parallels between the trapped Jews and the caged animals are evident.
The film very narrowly avoids becoming Schindler’s List meets Animal Planet—with a bit of Jurassic Park thrown in (thanks to Heck’s chimerical program to bring back the aurochs—extinct supercows), but I would have loved to see what a Central European director with a surrealist sensibility would have done with this story. The film had some genuinely moving moments such as when Antonina, with kindness and the help of a baby rabbit, nurtures a deeply traumatized young girl, who turns out to be a gifted artist.
The Zookeeper’s Wife earns four reels largely because of Jessica Chastain’s performance, but she is ably supported by an international cast of familiar and unknown actors.
Check the theater website for information about movie times and online tickets. The Zookeeper’s Wife accessibility: OC, 2:30 pm Sunday; all other showings with CC and descriptive audio.