*** (three stars)
Be forewarned. While this is a very good movie (based upon true events and persons), it takes place just before, and during, WWII. As such, there are many scenes of human suffering and barbarism that many will likely find disturbing.
The film takes place is Poland, beginning in 1939. Mrs. Antonia Zabinski and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski, are curators of the Warsaw zoo. Antonia (played very well by Jessica Chastain; perhaps you have seen her in “Zero Dark Thirty” for which she won a Golden Globe award for best actress in 2012) loves every minute of living and working hand in hand with the other employees for the care and feeding of the animals, many of which clearly adore her as well. All seems well in Warsaw for a time, until the Nazis invaded Poland. Both Antonia and her husband Jan ( a very difficult role, also played very well in a very subdued fashion by Johan Heldenbergh) must now report to their new boss at the zoo, Lutz Heck (played well by Daniel Brühl). It is no secret that Heck holds some affection for Antonia, although he knows she is married and the mother of Ryszard, her son. Shortly after Poland falls under Nazi rule, the Zabinskis begin to see many of their friends, Poles who are also Jews, forced out of their homes, taken to the Warsaw ghettos to live under Nazi tyranny. The Zabinskis know full well what this means; the Nazis will soon begin to exterminate them. No one is spared any indignity once the Nazis have taken over Poland, not even the animals in the zoo. The Zabinskis develop a plan to work covertly with others to save as many lives of Polish Jews as they can, hiding them in the catacombs that are carved out under the zoo. It’s a pretty ingenious plan, if it can work; the Nazis are also using the zoo as a staging area for some of their troops, so obviously, everyone hidden there (including the Zabinski family) is on pins and needles, making sure that the 300 or so Jews concealed there leave no footprint as to their existence on the premises. All the while, Heck is pressing his affections on Antonia, who is repulsed by his acceptance of his new role as a high ranking member of the Gestapo. Antonia is encouraged by her husband to ‘be nice to him’ (Heck) in order to ensure that their planned resistance is not revealed, yet when Jan witnesses Heck attempting to hold Antonia’s hand, he seethes with a silent rage, which he manages to keep in check until he is alone with Antonia. When they are alone, he releases all of his pent-up frustrations of a husband who is truly powerless to stop a man who may wind up having his way with his wife; Antonia is hurt by Jan’s accusations, but she handles his verbal tirade against her as only a devoted wife can.
Ryszard, the son of Antonia and Jan, discovers much of what his parents are doing, and there is much pressure on him as well; in one instance, Heck approaches Ryszard and questions him about his father’s whereabouts (Jan is also a member of the Polish Resistance, and has been away). It’s clear that Ryszard is trying to cover for his father, and he is clearly afraid of Heck, but the Zabinski family trudges forward, so focused they are on helping their friends escape the horrible fate that so many other Jews succumbed to at the hands of the Nazis. In one scene, the Nazis force all of the sequestered Jews from the Warsaw ghetto onto trains, where they are obviously headed to concentration camps, and to their deaths. Although every Jew forced on the train has packed a bag or a suitcase, all of their belongings are stacked in a large pile near the railroad depot; they are told that their personal effects will ‘catch up with them’ at their destination. As soon as the train pulls away from the station, their personal effects are destroyed by the Nazis, who also burn down the entire Warsaw ghetto with flame throwers. It’s a very powerful scene, one of many that viewers of this film will not soon forget.
As depressing as this film is, I must recommend seeing it, if only so that viewers truly ‘never forget’ man’s inhumanity to man. I don’t recommend bringing children under 14 years of age to see it, as it may weigh too heavy on young minds.
2 hrs and 5 minutes, directed by Niki Caro.