Greetings again from the darkness. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Director Niki Caro (North Country, Whale Rider) introduces us to the story of zookeeper Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina. The couple is a stunning example of heroism and bravery and compassion – both in cuddling with tiger cubs and in assisting approximately 300 Jews escape to freedom during the Nazi invasion of Warsaw in 1939. You might think of this as Schindler’s Zoo.
We first see Antonina (Jessica Chastain) as an angelic figure pedaling her bike through the zoo during morning rounds with a trotting young camel alongside, and soon thereafter helping rescue a newborn elephant from peril. It’s an idealistic image that appears shattered as soon as the German bombs begin dropping on Warsaw and the zoo. But the true story of what actually happened is more heartwarming and inspiring than a dozen fuzzy bunnies or peach-eating hippos.
Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book was based on the diaries of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, and is adapted for the screen by Angela Workman. Yes, that’s right … a woman director and woman writer collaborating on a film version of a book written by a woman about another woman! Some may say the film is too glossy and skips over the brutality of the Nazi’s, but this is the story of a brave, compassionate woman and how she and her husband risked their lives to save others. There is no shortage of films that depict the horrific tragedies that occurred in concentration camps, so it seems we should certainly celebrate the kind and courageous who did all they could in rescue efforts, as they used the Warsaw Zoo as a way to hide Jews in plain sight.
In addition to Ms. Chastain, who sports an unusual Russian accent throughout, Johan Heldenberg plays her husband, and Daniel Bruhl plays Lutz Heck – Hitler’s Chief Zoologist at the Berlin Zoo. The scenes between Heck and Antonina are excruciating as he first charms her with his love of animals, and then later frightens her with his unwanted advances and desire to cross-breed animals in hopes of creating superbeasts (sound familiar?).
One of the key messages seems to come from an early monologue delivered by Antonina where she compares the purity of animals (their eyes tell you everything) with the propensity to deceive and commonplace of ulterior motives in humans. While she prefers one approach over the other, it’s obvious that Antonina values all life and will pay whatever price necessary to save others. She has her chance to run, but chooses to stay and fight evil in the only way she knows how. Here’s hoping the film doesn’t begin a fad of pet skunks, but its message of compassion and courage is never out of place. The story runs from 1939 through 1946 and reminds us that heroes are amongst us always, and their journey can be both stressful and inspiring.
watch the trailer: