Underneath all the atrocities and horrors that were The Holocaust, lies many stories of courageous humans risking their lives to help their neighbors, their friends, and sometimes even strangers. As much as we can over obsess with the horrific details of suffering and abuse, the tales of the resistance are far more intriguing. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a movie that highlights that aspect. Rather than focusing on the torture and savagery, this film made them the backdrop to a story that showcases the strength of the human spirit without using concentration camps.
A movie about Nazis and the Holocaust that doesn’t revolve around the heroes of the battlefield or the barbary of the concentration camps? Yup, that’s what this is and believe it or not, it works. You see kids, just like with slavery, we don’t always have to be bombarded with the evils of the situation, sometimes, especially in these times, we need to be reminded of the fact that what truly helped people survive these awful events were each other. The type of tales that give us real life superheroes to remind us that while Wonder Woman taking an active role in World War I is an awesome sight, a real life heroine, Antonina Zabinski, was an actual woman with an active role in helping people find a safe port in the storm.
Based on a book by the same name, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of the Zabinskis, a family that resides at the Warsaw Zoo where husband, Jan, is the director. Antonina takes a very active and loving role with the animals as their house acts as a nursery for the newly born animals as well as their son. This idyllic life all comes to a crashing end on September 1st when Poland is seized by Germany and most of the zoo and its animals are destroyed in the ensuing bombing. Instead of running, they remain at their residence and decide to help one of their closest friends hide from the Nazis. It isn’t long before they realize that their ability to help needs to reach beyond just their friends.
Becoming active in the underground Polish resistance, they used their villa and the now vacant animal shelters and structures to help people escape from the nearby Warsaw Ghetto. Maintaining a small collection of animals, helping Germany’s lead zoologist, Lutz Heck, with his Jurassic Park like endeavors to resurrect extinct animal breeds, as well as using the farm to raise pigs as a means to help feed the German troops, the Zabinskis were able to help over 300 people. Some stayed for years, others simply passed through as husband Jan used his connections to help obtain passports and smuggle people out of the country and to safety. What shines through the most is the love the family has not only for each other, but for all life. It is where they draw their strength and what makes them successful in helping so many.
When I left the theater, I didn’t feel like I had just come from a movie about the Holocaust. Honestly, it reminded me of the superhero Marvel blockbusters without the massive special effects or clever one liners. Jessica Chastain shines as the heroine that is Antonina. She never has to be convinced to resist. In fact, it is her that convinces her husband that they belong there helping, not running. She takes an active role in trying to keep Heck from prying further even when it is clear he has a thing for her and no problem pursuing it. Played by Daniel Bruhl, Heck personifies the issues we as Americans are having with many of our own politicians, an arrogance and disregard for others masked behind a facade of “just wanting to help.” Once Germany takes over, that facade drops quickly and he has no problem playing the sly and subvertly menacing villain. Watching this movie literally made me excited for Wonder Woman. Watching Chastain kill yet another female lead in a politically charged drama was empowering. She sees that Heck takes a shine to her and uses it to her advantage despite being filled with fear by his very presence. Even in the scenes with her husband who tries to take a firm stance towards her staying in the face of the occupation, she pushes. While this film may be a story of one family’s courage in the face of violent adversity, underneath that it is an empowering tale of a heroine who remained true to herself and fought against the evil of men. Nevertheless, she persisted.
As with most movies featuring Nazis, set next to the courage and bravery of average people living and working together while respecting each other’s differences rather than condemning them, they seem like idiots. Even Heck whose immediate presence in the film has you questioning his motives, with his lofty ideas of breeding extinct animals, has moments where he can feel like an over the top cartoon villain. That is pretty much how most Nazi soldiers come across in film so it makes it even harder to understand why there are people in this country that idolize these fools still. Similar to the mystery surrounding the amount of licks one needs to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, I wonder how many movies about the Holocaust it takes for Trump supporters to see the scary similarities? The answer for both remains the same, the world may never know…