Film & Television

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ — an Extraordinary True Story of Humanity

One thing that makes The Zookeeper’s Wife different is its perspective. Written and directed by women, the movie tells the story of a female hero, whose very heroism is the natural extension of the parts of her character that are typically perceived female.

 

Many believe that there is a direct correlation between a person’s empathy for animals and his or her ability to feel compassion for fellow human beings. (Supporters of animal abuse registries often point to the correlation between acts of cruelty against animals and later acts of violence against humans.) The Zookeeper’s Wife makes a powerful case for humanity in all its forms. The Nazis are as quick to shoot a juvenile camel as they are two Jewish women betrayed by fellow boardinghouse residents. Fortunately for so many whom she saved, Antonina values life in all its forms.

New Zealand native Caro made an international name for herself in 2002, when she wrote and directed Whale Rider, another film that celebrated the powerful bond between humans and animals. She is passionate about the natural world and its place in her work. “As a kid I was always barefoot, always outside and as an adult I always want to be outside. If I can work with real material, real stories, in this case real animals, I will. I couldn’t conceive of making an authentic version of Antonina’s story by using fake animals. All of them are real except for the babies. All of the babies are puppets and anytime you see an animal that is hurt or killed it is a puppet or has been augmented with visual effects.” In one pivotal scene, Antonina attempts to comfort the shattered Urszula. She acknowledges how brutal men can be and hands the young girl a silky rabbit to cradle. A soul-saving, if not life-saving, connection is made.

As one of the most profound tragedies of modern history, the Holocaust has inspired exceptional films: Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, Sophie’s Choice, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bent, Europa Europa, Au Revoir Les Enfants, and many others. At some point, you might wonder what else there is to say. One thing that makes The Zookeeper’s Wife different is its perspective. Written and directed by women, the movie tells the story of a female hero, whose very heroism is the natural extension of the parts of her character that are typically perceived female. Her maternal instincts extend to every human being (and creature), and far beyond her own child.

Like many people, I often wonder what I would have done if I’d lived in Europe in the 1930s and 40s witnessing my own friends and neighbors persecuted for their faith. There are so many stories of heroism. Yet many more people either turned a blind eye or were complicit themselves (and there’s a strong argument that ignoring evil makes you party to it). I’d like to believe that given the opportunity I would have hidden people, helped them escape as Antonina did. But, even if I could overcome the fear I would have had for my own safety, I’m not sure that I could have put my child in harm’s way. In fact, I’m quite sure that many of the otherwise merciful people who chose not to resist the Nazis made that painful choice because of the potential consequences to their families. Fortunately for the hundreds she helped save, Antonina did not allow her love for her son to keep her from doing what was right.

Early in the movie, Jan urges Antonina to take Ryszard and leave Warsaw. She refuses, knowing that she must do what she can on behalf of the Jewish victims. Just as strong is her conviction that staying is the best thing to do for her son. She doesn’t want him to grow up to be the kind of person who lives in fear or runs away. Risking her life — and her son’s — is less important than standing up to evil. And even when her son is in very real danger as the movie reaches its final climax, Antonina stands by the decisions she’s made. She feels great love and sheer grief, but doesn’t distinguish between her nuclear family and the greater human family she has sworn to protect.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a deeply moving, at times heart-wrenching but often beautiful celebration of humanity. It transcends history and religious persecution. It unflinchingly depicts just how heartless human beings can be. But, what matters most (and what will stay with you after the movie ends) is how ordinary individuals can be made strong by the love in their hearts, how they can make a difference, and how they can and will ultimately defeat evil.

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  • Angela Workman December 1, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    I’ve only just seen this (because it was posted on Rotten Tomatoes). Thank you so much for your kind words, and for capturing, so perfectly, the intent at the heart of our film. It is a woman’s perspective on the inhumanity of war, and the struggle, without question or self-interest, to defend every living soul on earth. Angela Workman

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