BY ROGER THOMAS
I have to start by confessing that I do not think any film will ever move me the way “Schindler’s List” did. There have been other Holocaust films that are outstanding; “Sophie’s Choice” being one of them. I recently praised “Denial” as one of the best films of 2016. However, “Schindler’s List” will always be the “platinum standard.”
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a holocaust film set primarily in the Warsaw Zoo. It tells the story of Antonina Zabinski, the title character, and her husband Jan, who is the zookeeper. In the beginning they are doing all the tasks of anyone else who is running a zoo.
However, when the Germans invade Warsaw, Poland, the Zabinski family become rescuers. The Germans take many of the animals for the Berlin Zoo but the Zabinskies save some of the animals from relocation. Then ultimately, they save some people as well. The survival rate of those aided by the Zabinskies is stunning, but their compassionate and desire to do what is right is even more impressive.
There is much to like in the film. There is the history that will most likely surprise many. I know I had never heard this story of the Warsaw Zoo.
There are many scenes involving the animals, some amusing, some tragic, almost all captivating. I personally have a heart for animals and zoos. When I was a young child I often claimed that I was going to be a zookeeper one day. That did not happen, but I do still love animals.
Another strength of the film is Jessica Chasten. She always does great work, most recently in “Miss Sloane.” Her role as Antonina is much softer than her role in “Sloane” but she is still a very strong figure. The real Antonina must have been a very bold and righteous woman to take the risk and do what had to be done to save the lives of so many.
Daniel Burl is also one of the better elements of the film. He plays Lutz Heck, the Zookeeper of the Berlin Zoo, a soldier of Hitler’s army and a member of the Nazi Party. Many of his scenes are chilling.
The film also looks and sounds great. The cinematography, set decoration, and sound effects recreate the past and fill the screen with many sights and sounds. The zoo is an impressive set but so also is the ghetto where the Germans gather the Jewish citizens of Warsaw.
I would offer word of caution. This film is rated PG-13. There is quite a bit less violence and blood than in many other Holocaust films like “Schindler’s List.” However, there are some implied things, including an assault on a young girl by multiple soldiers. This happens off-camera but is still powerfully tragic. There are also scenes of loading people into boxcars and people being shot. I would not recommend this for any children under twelve, but again it is a much softer film than others telling of these horrific events.
As compared to all the Holocaust films that have been made, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is not the best, but this subject has been caught on film many times. Like all the movies that deal with this horrific era, these stories raise a question in our minds. What would we risk if we had to choose? Oskar Schindler took the risk and saved over twelve-hundred people. The zookeeper Jan and his wife Antonina also risked their lives, and the life of there young son and infant daughter to save others.
May no one ever have to make the choice again. But let films like “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and “Schindler’s List” remind us that sometimes doing the righteous thing is not easy or safe.
Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.