Savour the beginning. Warm up to the birth of a baby
elephant, sprightly zebras and chattering monkeys, zookeeper Dr Jan Zabinski’s soft-hearted
wife Antonina, their son cuddling up with lion cubs and sunlight bathing the
Before the horrors of the holocaust catch up with this
The novelty lingers when director Niki Caro films this
beautiful world in panic after a gruesome air attack where animals and humans
are petrified out of their skin. The close-your-eyes moment comes when the
Nazis arrive with guns aimed atthe animals who’ve become family.
But it isn’t long before it turns into the Warsaw
chapter of an inhuman war seen many times before. When the Zabinskis turn their
empty cages and tunnels into a haven for Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, it is a
wonderful tale of valour. Dr Zabinski’s daring plot of whisking away the Jews
under piles of garbage has its initial edge-of-the-seat anxiety. But it’s a
familiar anxiety that Spielberg created with so much more impact about the
German industrialist who saved hundreds of Jewish lives.
And then Caro brings in maudlin mush without accompanied
by the required nail-chewing tension. For instance, right under their nose is
the case of the young girl who’s been mauled and raped by German soldiers. So,in
contrast, when Hitler’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck makes restrained moves like
tenderly washing Antonina’s hands, he seems more like one of her harmless
animals than like a menacing inimical force. Considering he arrives somewhere
around 1939 to use the zoo for an ambitious experiment to revive aurochs, an
extinct species of bison-like animals, and he’s around till the end of the war
in 1946, he doesn’t make even a full-fledged move on Antonina until she herself
dresses up to seduce him for a favour.
Caro therefore doesn’t build a hateful, terrifying
antagonist out of the Nazi officer.And she’s creatively more in form with the
animals than with the human zoo.
While husband Jan has at least a few flashes of
jealousy, Antonina is an amalgam of every known virtue. The perfect wife,
mother, caregiver, pianist, humanist and if one can give a new, loving meaning
to the word ‘animalist’, she’s that too. But this is actress JessicaChastain’s
show all the way.
For a film that recallsthe holocaust without bringing
anything exceptionally new to the table, The
Zookeeper’s Wife gets a 2.5* rating.
Journalist & Author