Review / ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ (MA) *** and a half

ANGELA Workman’s screenplay for NZ-born director Niki Caro adapts Diane Ackerman’s book telling how a small group saved more than 300 people from Nazi atrocities against Warsaw’s Jewish population.

Antonina Żabiński was head keeper at the Warsaw Zoological Garden where her husband Jan was director. Director of a German zoo Lutz Heck was also an SS officer. For purposes of the screenplay, we may assume that the film’s many other characters were indeed real people.

In a short and shocking sequence, soldiers force a mother and her adult daughter out of their house and shoot them on the footpath as collaborators. The film memorialises them by name.

Condensing five horrific years into 127 minutes of film memorialises not only those who fought and died in the Warsaw ghetto but also the unfortunates packed into railway vans for delivery to the holocaust.

In that poignant, heartbreaking sequence, children hold up their arms so that Antonina may lift them into a van, as she must to protect her secret work. The story makes a brutal symbolic reference to the fate of women whom conquering German troops raped.

The role of Antonina is another milestone for Jessica Chastain who for a reason unknown (and which some might say unnecessary) speaks with an accent.

Daniel Bruhl is appropriately loathsome as Lutz Heck. Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh probably understates the role of Jan, at the front of clandestine rescue operations, an active partisan, afeard for not only his son but also his wife as the prize that Lutz Heck tries to claim.

A brief coda tells us that some two decades after the end of the war, the Żabińskis received medals for their role. Niki Caro’s film serves as a powerful reminder of what happened nearly eight decades ago.

At Palace Electric, Dendy and Capitol 6

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