We may never run out of movies to make about World War II, the people who lived through it, and the people who didn’t. It may seem a bit obvious given the global scope of the conflict, but the sheer number of narratives that have emerged from the period is truly mind-boggling, bordering on the infinite, and it often feels as though most of them have made their way in front of a camera. The Holocaust alone offers more stories than we could ever hope to pass along — in Niki Caro’s beautifully realized and occasionally stirring “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” even the animals have their own tales to tell.
Adapted from Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name, Caro’s most vivid and complete film since “Whale Rider” relays the remarkable true story Antonina and Jan Żabińska (Jessica Chastain and “The Broken Circle Breakdown” star Johan Heldenbergh), the kind-hearted goyim who ran the Warsaw Zoo during the Nazi occupation and spared some love for every species of guest whom they invited onto their sprawling property.
Antonina, a regal sort of woman who assumes a different, more domestic kind of heroism than we’re used to seeing in films about the resistance, is depicted as being particularly protective of all God’s creatures. Blessed with a maternal streak as fierce as mother nature’s itself, Antonina lets a lion cub sleep beside her young son, Ryszard, she lets a skunk move in to her bedroom, and — in an incredible first act sequence that vividly establishes her empathetic spirit — she even helps revive a suffocating baby elephant.
So when the calendar flips to 1939 and the Germans swarm into Poland, leveling much of the Warsaw Zoo in a surreal scene that sends camels and tigers wandering through the metropolitan streets, Mr. and Mrs. Żabińska immediately default to the defense of life. Together, with the help of a loyal groundskeeper played by “Game of Thrones” alum Michael McElhatton, Jan and Antonina secretly begin transforming their shattered menagerie into a vital way station in the city’s underground railroad.
Their system is as brilliant as it is simple: Jan drives his truck into the ghetto under the pretense of collecting garbage to feed the pigs he’s farming for the Nazis, and he drives his truck out of the ghetto with as many stowaways as he can fit under the heaps of trash in his cargo. Antonina takes over from there, funneling the fugitive children out of the city through the labyrinth of tunnels that slither beneath the house, and dyeing her female guests blonde so that she can pass them off in broad daylight. The Nazi soldiers stationed at the zoo are completely oblivious to what’s going on right below their noses — not even Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the horny mad scientist who leverages his status as Hitler’s favorite zoologist to sexually threaten Antonina — has the slightest idea that his crush is cucking him with basic decency.
And decency, in its raw, instinctive form, is ultimately what earns “The Zookeeper’s Wife” a place in the self-conflicted canon of Holocaust cinema. One of those lush, handsomely shot historical dramas where everyone speaks heavily accented English instead of the characters’ native tongue, Caro’s film may come to feel like an unlikely cross between “We Bought a Zoo” and “Schindler’s List,” but it vibes on a wavelength all its own because of how completely it shirks the matter of a moral awakening. Antonina isn’t some lecherous capitalist who needs to learn the value of human life, she’s just a human who finds herself living through some decidedly inhumane times — the Holocaust doesn’t change her, it just strengthens her resolve. A fundamental sense of empathy may not be especially cinematic, but that’s no reason to ignore it (and Chastain, who strikes a wonderful balance with Heldenbergh, is masterful at expressing stoicism without ever tipping into sanctimony). Compassion, Antonina’s experience remembers for us, is always heroic.
That welcome lack of character growth, however, has a way of muddying up the movie’s structure, forcing the film to gin up a number of glaringly artificial moments in order to better shape its story. Heck’s descent from civilian geneticist to Nazi eugenicist is an interesting counterpoint for Antonina’s unwavering sense of ethics, but Brühl slips into the vile Nazi caricature he perfected in “Inglourious Basterds,” and his outsized villainy clashes against the movie’s comparatively muted tonal register. Jan, meanwhile, is never given the screen time required for Heldenbergh to articulate his character’s journey from covert rescuer to armed combatant.
But for every incongruously broad human moment, screenwriter Angela Workman delivers an emotionally incisive animal one. Unexpectedly adorable for a Holocaust movie (shout out to the breakout rabbit, the big screen’s best bunny since “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”), “The Zookeeper’s Wife” never loses sight of why the Żabińskas’ original visitors are so vital to this story. “You look in their eyes,” Antonina says of her animals, “and you know exactly what is in their hearts.” That notion might be garnished with romantic sentiment, but the fact remains that animals are not capable of cruelty. The film’s most indelible image, in which an Aryan woman snaps the 1939 equivalent of a selfie in front of the ghetto, scores of Jews clumped behind her in a sort of human zoo, it’s gallingly clear that we — on the other hand — are capable of anything.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” opens in theaters on Friday, March 31.