First Hit: Very well made and crafted film that tells a compelling story. This story is impactful because of its significance in WWII. As Warsaw falls to Nazi Germany the Warsaw Zoo, being managed by Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh respectively) comes under the control of Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who was head of Berlin’s Zoo. However, now he’s under Hitler’s spell of supremacy.
The early scenes are set up to show just how much Antonina loves her animals. Later on we learn why she’s drawn to the animals and it solidifies the early part of the film. This is great direction of a strong script. The reaffirming of the story as it moves along.
Another time I thought this film did this well was when Jan and Antonina were lying in bed, and he subtly indicates that Antonina must really work her friendship with Heck to make their lives and the lives they want to save, easier. What is interesting is that I interpreted this to mean that she was given a level of freedom to use her sexuality. Antonina hears this as well, but when Heck washes her hands and Jan sees this, he gets really angry and she doesn’t understand why, she thought she was supposed to do this. This is great and interesting filmmaking.
The story is that after the Germans took and killed all their zoo animals for meat, Jan and Antonina started hiding young Jewish children and some adults in the basement area (some cages) below their home. They would then connect these people with others who were getting them out of the country or into other safe houses.
Jan would pick them up in trucks collecting food garbage from the ghetto Jewish area of the city, tuck people under the garbage and bring them into their home, feed them, supply them with legal paper forgeries and send them on their way. One day Jan sees two German soldiers sexually attack a young girl named Urszula (Shira Haas), so he gathers her up and takes her back to his house. She is in shock and with gentle kindness is slowly brought out of her shock by a rabbit, painting and other young children who are hiding out.
The story evolves to shortly after the war and with this ending, there is some happiness and of course sadness. The amazing thing is that they saved over 300 Jews from being shipped to a concentration camp and their probable death.
Chastain was superb. She captured vulnerability, strength, and persistence. Her ability to hold and be Antonina’ heart was wonderful. Heldenbergh was amazing. His ability to be tough, yet have the kind of compassion he shows in this role is amazing. Bruhl was very strong in an unenviable role. He clearly carried the appropriate level of following orders. Haas was sublime. She was so strong and believable in this role that I couldn’t image it being done any better. Her evolution from shock to engaged with others was perfect. Val Maloku as Jan and Antonina’s son was excellent. The scene when Heck questions him in the kitchen was amazing. Angela Workman wrote an incredible screenplay from the true story by Diane Ackerman. Niki Caro did an amazing job of directing this film and telling this story.
Overall: Seeing the trailers, I didn’t really expect to like this film, however, I was deeply touched by the story and the way it was delivered.