Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Movie Review: "The Zookeeper's Wife" (2017)

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Director: Niki Caro
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

Antonina and Jan Zabinski use their zoo in Warsaw, Poland as a hiding place for Jews during the World War II German occupation. 

"The Zookeeper's Wife" is directed by Niki Caro, who is known for her beautiful film "Whale Rider," and more recently for the inspirational sports drama "McFarland, USA." It is written by Angela Workman, based on the non-fiction book of the same name. It stars Jessica Chastain as the titular zookeeper's wife Antonina Zabinski, and Johan Heldenbergh as the zookeeper himself Jan Zabinski. Joining them is Daniel Brühl, who plays Lutz Heck, the owner of the Berlin Zoo who was, at one time, a friend of the Zabinski's prior to becoming an SS officer in the Nazi military. When Germany occupies Poland, the prize stock animals are transported to Berlin, and others are killed on site. Heck uses the zoo for a bison breeding program in an attempt to bring back an extinct species of buffalo. The zoo is also used as a German storage facility that is constantly patrolled by the German military. Under the guise of using the facilities to raise pigs for these German soldiers stationed on the grounds, Antonina and Jan attempt to persuade Lutz to give in to their idea. All the while, the Zabinskis risk everything in order to smuggle many Jewish people out of the Warsaw ghetto and hide them in their zoo until they are able to find them each a safe-house.

We say it all the time on this here reviewing website. WWII offers an endless supply of engaging, heartbreaking, and interesting stories for filmmakers. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though over the decades, the movies and true life tales have started to blend together. This particular story is one that deserves to be told. Any of the numerous people who risked their lives to stand up to tyranny, oppression, and the massive persecution of an entire race of people deserve to have their stories told, especially today as xenophobia seems to be on the rise. Politicians play the blame game by persecuting an entire race of people for the actions of a few bad eggs. Constantly spreading the fear of "the other" or "the different" is exactly how the atrocities in Nazi Germany began lo those decades ago. There were times during this film where I personally broke down crying knowing how some people want to take our world back to a time when things like this actually happened, how it seems we are doomed to repeat history with the choices we make. We hope it never comes to this again, but sometimes, we cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of emotion when thinking about how similar the parallels are at times.

Here, many of the sheep in Germany were caught up in the rhetoric, like the character of Lutz Heck, who gets turned from a seemingly good person into the scum of history. Other more free-thinking people saw the harm being done and saw past the hate, blame, and propaganda, and defied the ruling/occupying government and risked everything to do what was right, like Antonina and Jan. Because of this, there is a lot of tension in "The Zookeeper's Wife" as the Zabinskis hide Jews in what was essentially a place turned into German headquarters. As people like Heck come in and out to check on various different things, we wait breathlessly on pins and needles, hoping no one will make a sound and get caught. There could have been a little bit more focus on those being hid instead of the hiders, but overall, we remained engaged throughout its entire two hour run time. In addition, this film is beautifully shot, especially in regards to the scenes featuring many of the zoo's animal inhabitants. It also has many moments of strong emotion between Antonina, Jan, and their young son as they do their best to remain calm while turning their lives around to help stop people from being rounded up and killed. The movie is very well acted by Chastain, Heldenbergh and Brühl, who all give excellent performances.

"The Zookeeper's Wife" might not be the very best movie on this overall subject, but it is a solid offering that brings attention some of the lesser known heroes of WWII. We are glad we got to hear about this compelling story.

My Rating: 7/10
BigJ's Rating: 7.5/10
IMDB's Rating: 7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 61%
Do we recommend this movie: Sure, why not?

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