Intrinsic to any Holocaust-themed film is the precarious balancing act between the magnitude of the historical tragedy and an individual narrative that can hook a viewer. Director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman adapt Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book, making it almost entirely about Antonina Žabiński (Jessica Chastain), who assisted her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) in running the Warsaw Zoo circa 1939, before eventually turning it into a sanctuary for Polish Jews during the German occupation. Caro offers some of the fascinating details that made Ackerman’s book, including the underground assembly line for smuggling Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and eventually out of the country, while Chastain effectively captures the compassion for all living things central to Antonina’s actions. But the story comes to focus on her interactions with Lutz Heck, the Nazi head of the Berlin Zoo (Daniel Brühl), and Jan’s petty jealousy as he observes Heck’s attentions to Antonina. The problems of two people, hill of beans, etc., yet somehow the big picture of the lives the Žabińskis saved gets obscured by taking the book’s deceptive title at face value.
Director: Niki Caro
Producer: Jeff Abberley, Jamie Patricof, Diane Miller Levin, Kim Zubick, Marc Butan, Robbie Rowe Tollin, Mike Tollin, Jessica Chastain, Kevan Van Thompson, Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon and Jennifer Monroe
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Daniel Brühl, Iddo Goldberg, Anna Rust, Brian Caspe, Goran Kostic, Shira Haas and Efrat Dor