Niki Caro has the rare ability to elevate what could be emotionally manipulative schlock to earnest art. To judge by the trailer, her low-budget breakthrough feature Whale Rider (2003) seemed a straightforward children’s drama about a girl overcoming the odds — tame, commercial Disney fare. But the film itself proved so much more: a nakedly honest portrayal of adolescent confusion slipped into a mystical story about a Maori girl who befriends whales and becomes the leader of her people. Caro could have emphasized the magic with glossy cinematography and over-the-top acting, but she instead counters the fantastic storyline with realism, grounding the film in powerful yet restrained performances.
Later, when Caro actually did a Disney film — McFarland, USA (2015) — she again took what could have been a run-of-the-mill white-savior sports film and transformed it into a warm, thoughtful drama that asks big questions while swelling toward a happy ending only the churlish wouldn’t cheer. Now, Caro’s brought her skills to another biopic, The Zookeeper’s Wife, a period piece about the Warsaw Zoo’s husband-wife caretakers who trafficked hundreds of Jews out of the Nazi-controlled ghettos. True to form, Caro seems unbound by her audience’s expectations of a WWII picture; she delivers a singular, thrilling portrait, filled with surprises and moving performances.
It’s 1939, and Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) run — and live inside — a world-class zoo in the center of the Polish capital. Every morning, the pair and their son Ryszard (Timothy Radford) swing open the teal copper gates for the guests, and then Antonina cycles around, delivering food and friendship to the animals in what’s almost a big-budget Mrs. Doolittle sequence: Caro presents these opening scenes of habit in golden tones, with Chastain’s tawny locks lit up by the sun as a baby camel chases her bicycle. That bliss is quickly overwhelmed with trepidation after young Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) becomes smitten with Antonina at a party. She and Jan aren’t Jewish, but most of their friends and neighbors are.
Caro swiftly moves the story along — it spans from 1939-1946. Soon, Warsaw’s being invaded: Bombs rain over the zoo; soldiers gun down an elephant; that camel totters around in circles; monkeys shriek, trapped in their cages. Caro’s lens doesn’t flinch at these moments. They’re hugely unsettling and yet also beautiful. She insists we see and feel every excruciating bit of this violence and ends the sequence with eerie silence, as three big cats pace the snow-covered rubble of the city center, frightened, confused and so far from their homes.
Those images of violence against animals might jolt jaded audiences desensitized even to something as horrific as human genocide — the movies have no shortage of depictions of Nazi violence against humans. Caro shows just enough to suggest the human brutality inside the Jewish ghettos, perhaps out of respect and to avoid sensationalizing it; the animals act almost as stand-ins for the human victims.
As Jan smuggles Jewish children into his slop truck, so he can hide them in his zoo, the camera catches little vignettes of atrocities: An old woman lying unconscious in the street, two boys hassled by Nazis, a young girl pushed by SS officers into a dark corner — every frame is alive with detail. And Jan’s response upon entering this world is heartbreaking — Heldenbergh stilts his speech and looks at each ghetto captive with the realization that they will die if he does not save them.
Meanwhile, Antonina is thrown to a metaphorical lion: Lutz. She stays close to the house, enduring the Nazi’s advances with a smile while diverting his attention from the basement, where Jews are hiding. A scene where Jan and Antonina seem to argue about which of the two of them has it worse in their current station is only a minute long but represents Caro’s original take on a war picture — she’s deftly exploring how each gender uniquely suffered during the occupation.
Chastain is especially affecting here, as the broken but hopeful heroine. It took me about 10 minutes to get past the Russian accent she has donned, but her intonations are precise while also easy off the tongue. And the actor’s as at home with her Russian lilt as she is with a wild animal in her arms; throughout the story, Antonina casually picks up and kisses lion cubs, a wallaby, a skunk, a pig, a parrot and more. One crucial moment finds Antonina holding a bunny to her heart as she tells one of their most frightened Jewish guests about how her father was gunned down in St. Petersburg. Chastain chooses to play this scene not as a sobbing mess but as a woman who’s lived many lives and is simply telling the story of the first one.
Brühl, too, somehow finds a way to reinvent a character type we’ve seen before. His pudgy milk face paired with an air of naïve arrogance translates into such a fantastic, multilayered Nazi, his cruelty stemming from a kind of childlike purity. And Caro’s careful to prosecute that willful ignorance — one of the most uncomfortable scenes is less than five seconds long and depicts a nice Polish woman posing for a picture in front of the ghettos, a tourist of other people’s suffering. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe we need yet another WWII biopic, but The Zookeeper’s Wife is so wholly indelible that it makes the case for more, not less.