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The Zookeeper’s Wife
Many films have been made about the Holocaust, reminding audiences of the physical, mental and spiritual horror created and carried out by humans on other humans. “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider” and “North Country”) is based on the nonfiction book of the same title, and takes another look at that atrocity through the lens of poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman. Ackerman based her book on the unpublished diary of Antonina Zabinski, whose husband, Jan Zabinski, was the director of the Warsaw Zoo when it was bombed by the Nazis in 1939. As a naturalist, Ackerman has conducted research of animal behaviors in Brazil, Hawaii, California, Texas, Antarctica, the Amazon rainforest and Japan, publishing articles, books and poetry that look deep inside the metaphors of human and animal coexistence, concluding that it is humans who have brought about change in nature. This film investigates and explores that premise poetically, as we witness Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) rescue 300 Jews by hiding them in their zoo and releasing them back into freedom.
Antonina tells a young girl, who has recently been raped by Nazi soldiers, “You can never tell who your enemies are. Or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes and you know exactly what’s in their hearts.” Right from the top, we witness Antonina’s connection to animals, waking up daily with lion cubs in bed with her and her son, touring the zoo, greeting every caged animal with morning salutations, until she reaches her husband and falls into his arms. We know this is the romance that is going to be challenged, as we are drawn into the love that unites this couple to their work, to their world, to their family. When the bombs hit and the atrocities begin, we never lose sight of the power of their love to find a way not only to survive, but to provide survival for others.
Chastain (“The Martian” and “Mama”) plays Antonina with unusual sensibility, unafraid to plunge into the gore of helping a mother elephant rescue her baby from a complicated birth, while armed men and German socialites stand by worried and condescending. Antonina establishes her power over everyone through her relationship with the animals; unfortunately, at the same time she gives birth to an illusion in the mind of her Nazi boss, Lutz Heck, played by Daniel Brühl, who falls helplessly in lust with her and wants her to help him breed a mythical bull that never existed. A paradoxical kind of metaphor that says a lot about what was at the perverse hearts and minds of the Nazis.
As the Warsaw Ghetto gets burned to the ground, Antonina steps out into a cloud of ashes that fall like snowflakes, wondering just where this perverse hunger for power will lead, as it destroys her beautiful zoo. Her only salvation is in finding it for others.
Show times April 21-27: Friday, 4:45, 7:45 p.m.; Saturday, 2:30, 5:30, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1:30, 4:30, 7:30 p.m.; Monday, 4:45, 7:45 p.m.; Tuesday, 1:30, 4:30, 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, 4:30, 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, 3:30 p.m. For additional films and events, please visit plazamac.org or call the box office at (631) 428-0083.
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