Movies about the Holocaust have become their own genre, instantly recognizable by a series of familiar images: yellow stars and striped pyjamas; cattle cars inhumanely packed with people; barbed wire fences delineating the line between death and freedom. The Zookeeper’s Wife introduces a new set of symbols into this cinematic lexicon, entirely surprising but historically accurate: lions and tigers wandering empty city streets, the terrestrial equivalent of fish out of water.
The movie, based on Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction 2007 book of the same name, opens in Warsaw, Poland, in September 1939, just before the Germans began bombing the city beyond recognition. When the bombs come, the people — zookeeper Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) — are terrified, but not without warning. The animals, on the other hand, are bewildered, disoriented and frightened by the man-made destruction all around them.
The Zookeeper’s Wife, which hits theaters March 31, is mostly about people: Jan and Antonina and the hundreds of Jews they hid in their zoo throughout the course of World War II, risking their own lives to save others. But it is the expressions on the faces of elephants and camels and kangaroos that offer a window into the war that most filmmakers haven’t, up until now, chosen to look through.
“Isn’t it interesting that animals somehow open up and expand our humanity?” asks director Niki Caro, best known for her award-winning 2002 drama Whale Rider and soon to be best known for Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan. “I think this story offers another way into the Holocaust that allows us to feel in a way that we haven’t felt for a long time, maybe, as time distances us from those events, as many movies have been made.”
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