The Warsaw zookeeper, he’s a pretty good zookeeper all right.
He’s up and at ’em early in the morning, feeding the animals and overseeing the landscaping work and getting the zoo ready for another big day. Solid stuff.
Ah, but the zookeeper’s wife, she’s something altogether amazing and magical.
She cuddles with baby lions as if they were newborn puppies. She rides about the zoo on her bicycle, greeting the hippos and the monkeys with such glee, one half-expects her to break into song as cartoon birds perch on her shoulder.
When a majestic elephant gives birth to a calf that isn’t breathing, the zookeeper’s wife climbs into the pen, calms the frantic mother and clears the path for the baby elephant to breathe — in front of a bunch of snooty, dinner party guests who moments earlier had been snickering at the simple zookeeper and his simple wife.
And all these feats take place before the Germans plunder through Poland and the zookeepers turn their bombed-out animal sanctuary into a hiding place and way station for hundreds of Jews desperate to escape the death sentence that is the Warsaw Ghetto.
So vast were the horrors of World War II, and so many were the mostly unsung heroes, it appears as there’s no end in sight to big-screen dramatizations based on or inspired by true stories.
Good. These are stories that need telling, names that need to be remembered.
The director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) and the screenwriter Angela Workman deliver a powerful, gauzy, sentimental, almost too restrained telling of “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” an adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s remarkable non-fiction book about Antonina and Jan Zabinski, the proprietors of the Warsaw Zoo, who risked their own lives as they harbored hundreds of people and helped funnel them to safety.
Johan Heldenbergh is excellent playing Jan, an educated, peaceful zoologist who becomes a man of action after the bombs drop on his home. Jan figures out a way to infiltrate the Warsaw Ghetto, gain the trust of the German hierarchy and smuggle prisoners from under their very noses.
Jessica Chastain is Antonina, and this is Chastain’s movie through and through. Chastain effectively channels an Eastern European accent — this is one of those World War II movies where the characters all speak in English, but with the accents of their home countries — and constructs an authentic, empathetic performance that keeps the movie grounded, even when it veers close to being overly saccharine.
In the summer of 1939, the war literally hits home (the Zabinski’s house is on the grounds) when bombs strike the Warsaw Zoo, sending wild animals into the city streets and creating some of the film’s most striking imagery, e.g., a tiger prowling through rubble, and Nazi gunmen taking aim at beloved, frightened, doomed creatures.
The wonderful character actor Daniel Bruhl grows ever more villainous as chief Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck, who doesn’t even bother to disguise his thirst for power (and his animalistic lust for Antonina) as he takes control of the zoo, shipping off the prize specimens to Germany for selective breeding to re-create long-extinct species. (Jeez.)
(Bruhl played the fictional Wehrmacht marksman Zoller in “Inglorious Basterds,” and he was seen earlier this year as the German police inspector in “Alone in Berlin.” I guess if you’re a steadily working actor of considerable talent raised in Germany, it’s likely you’ll find yourself playing the World War II bad guy more than once in your career.)
The Zabinskis come up with a plan that allow them to keep their home: They’ll turn the zoo into a pig farm to provide food to German soldiers. This is also the means that allows them to create an “overground” railroad of sorts. Jan makes regular runs into the Warsaw ghetto to collect garbage that will be fed to the pigs — and he hides men, women and children under the garbage, bringing them back to the zoo, where they will hide in the basement until safe passage can be arranged.
At times “The Zookeeper’s Wife” provides harsh reminders of the horrors of war, as when a little girl is taken into an alley by a group of German soldiers and emerges bloody and violated, or when a woman and her elderly mother are dragged out of their dwelling and executed on sight because someone has identified them as Jewish. The battle scenes aren’t played out on a grand scale, but they’re reasonably tense and well executed.
But more scenes are bathed in warm sepia tones or exquisitely lit dark blues and grays. The children hiding downstairs chalk murals on the walls. At night, when the German soldiers aren’t around, Antonina plunks at the piano — a signal for everyone to come up and gather round for nourishment and comfort.
At times Caro goes overboard with the symbolism and the grabs for the heart, as in the sequence where she cuts back and forth between the firebombing of the Warsaw Ghetto and a Passover seder.
No doubt the real story of the zookeeper’s wife was messier, rougher, grittier than this well-intentioned, solid film with a glowing performance from Jessica Chastain.
Focus Features presents a film directed by Niki Caro and written by Angela Work, based on the book by Diane Ackerman. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking). Running time: 126 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.