A small child lifts his arms so that he can be lifted up into a waiting train. There is an innocence in the youngster’s eyes revealing no knowledge of the horrific fate that lies ahead.
He’s followed by another child and then another. Finally the last child is placed on the train and the Jewish youngsters begin their trip to death at the hands of the Nazis. Only the mix of looks of anguish, loss of hope and hatred on the face of Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) reveals the heartbreaking truth of the moment.
Jan Zabinski also witnesses the brutal rape of a young Jewish girl that in itself is disturbing to watch but made all the more powerful by the way the scene is accented by Zabinski’s face.
It’s this kind of intimate filmmaking that makes director Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife” so powerful and haunting. The film is the latest to look at the evils committed during World War II but feels fresh because Caro keeps the focus on small moments like the one at the train station or with the young girl.
The film is based on Diane Ackerman’s book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story” that recounts the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, owners of the Warsaw Zoo in 1939. After the occupation by the Germans, the couple manage to turn their zoo into a way station for Jews escaping the country.
Antonina, as played by Jessica Chastain, is the heart of the story. She’s a woman so in love with life that she embraces animals with the same compassion and care as humans. She explains it’s easy to deal with animals because when you look into their eyes, you know exactly what they are thinking.
That’s not the case with the Germans. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) initially connects with the Zabinskis as a fellow animal lover who runs a zoo in Berlin. As he finds power with the Nazi high command, he becomes more brutal toward both the people and animals.
Much of the relationship between Antonina and Heck gives Chastain some of her best acting opportunities. She’s able to show the audience the disgust she feels for Heck while still playing it so the German has no idea about her true feelings.
Chastain plays a myriad of emotions as the film swirls into the desperation felt by those trying to stop the evil that has invaded the country and her zoo. Chastain has already earned two Oscar nominations for “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Help.” Those were great performances, and this work surpasses them both.
Caro also finds time to deal with the strain put on the Zabinskis as Jan faces the realities of war while Antonina tries to keep Heck from discovering the truth at any cost. Caro uses the couple as part of a larger love story about the part of humanity that makes some humans show compassion and concern no matter the potential consequences.
The film has a pacing problem, spending a lot of time establishing Antonina’s love of animals but racing through a pregnancy and birth. But the pacing doesn’t take away from the stark drama of this true story of bravery, hope, love and war as seen through smaller moments.
Stories about the evils of World War II have been told and retold. By contrast to other works on the topic, Caro’s film takes a simplistic view of evil and tells this tale through strong performances by Chastain and Helderbergh.