Based on Diane Ackerman’s book, the story revolves around the titular character, a woman named Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain). She is sort of an animal whisperer at the Warsaw Zoo, where she helps her zookeeper husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) in the daily tasks of managing a zoo. As you see her ride her bike through the zoo grounds, wishing the animals a good morning as an adorable baby camel trots behind her, you know that this idyllic world won’t last. Not long after, the world comes literally crashing down via German bombers from the sky.
The most powerful moments of the movie are not of panicked humans but of helpless caged animals surrounded by explosions. A tiger crouches, howling in fear and anger, while a polar bear bellows and paces while monkeys flip out in their confined spaces. The terror is real, and what better way to convey helplessness than with literal, primal fear.
After their zoo turns to carnage, Antonina and Jan first start hesitantly then more boldly defying the Nazi occupiers. First a longtime friend is threatened, and they hide the wife while her husband goes to the Warsaw ghetto. Then Jan figures ways to enter the ghetto as a pig farmer and shuttle out a few lucky refugees whom Antonina then hides in the cellar of their house at the zoo. All of this happens under the nose of Berlin-zookeeper-turned-Nazi Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a peer of theirs who becomes, in a way, a zookeeper to a city.
This is the kind of story that you know will end with white lettering across a black screen, summarizing how many Jews this couple saved, while giving a bigger picture of the destruction of war. And it IS an interesting and unique story deserving to be told, as evidenced by the book. But sometimes you can’t help but think of it as a series of scenes that you’ve seen in so many other World War II Nazi movies… scenes that, for whatever reason, carried more emotional heft. Maybe you should just read the book.
The Blu-ray release features a making-of featurette featuring director Niki Caro chatting about the journey of making the film and keeping a feminine point of view for the story. There is also a short featurette about the real-life Zabinski family, featuring their children. Finally there are several deleted scenes included.