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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



The Zookeeper’s Wife, Review by Siraj Syed: Of animals, animal instincts and humanity above all

The Zookeeper’s Wife, Review by Siraj Syed: Of animals, animal instincts and humanity above all

A wife, a husband their zoo and the Jews. Unlikely ingredients of a film seen by us critics on the eve of Hitler’s birthday. And yet, The Zookeeper’s Wife movie survives some uneven narrative and unimaginative camerawork to settle down into a compelling, if understated, holocaust tale that more than deserves a cursory viewing. It begins as The Life of Pi, moves on to join Schindler’s List, occupies a chapter in The Diary of Anne Frank, and then acquires a life of its own.

If you feel that the co-incidences, and disbelief, are too many, and too much to swallow or suspend, remember, it is based on a World War II true story, and has been re-enacted for audiences two-three-four generations thence. But the uncanny fact that we were shown the film a day before German dictator’s Adolf (20 April 1889-30th April 1945) Hitler’s birthday cannot escape our awareness.

Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife, Antonina (Jessica Chastain) are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo (Miejski Ogród Zoologiczny), one of the largest and most prolific zoos in the Europe of the 1930s. The film begins with Antonina opening the gates to the daily visitors, in the calm of September 1939. Hours before the zoo opens for the day, a crowd has already gathered to view the many species on display in the zoo. Jan faces the scornful, yet envious advances of Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the head of the Berlin Zoo, and Hitler’s Chief Zoologist, who also nurses a soft corner for Antonina.

Antonina and her son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and later, Val Maloku) are shocked witnesses to the aerial bombardment of Warsaw, as German forces storm Poland. The Zoo is not spared; bombs raze the cages and kill many of the animals. Warsaw becomes the scene of a monstrous upheaval. Jews are singled out before their stores and shops are looted, and they are eventually herded into the Ghetto. Wearing Star of David armbands, two of the Żabińskis' friends, Maurycy Fraenkel (Iddo Goldberg) and his partner Magda Gross (Efrat Dor) seek a haven, not for themselves, but for another friend's notable insect collection. Antonina makes an unusual offer to shelter Magda in an attic closet.

With the zoo to be closed permanently under German orders, Jan and Antonia seek out Heck, who has now set up headquarters in Warsaw, for his ground-breaking research in bison breeding. The Żabińskis make a daring proposal to turn the remaining structures into a pig farm, to ultimately provide food for the occupying forces. The proposal is accepted, albeit with both parties having ulterior motives.

Based on American poet, essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman (now 70)'s non-fiction book, The Zookeeper's Wife also relied heavily on the author's use of the diaries of Antonina, published in Poland as Ludzie i zwierzęta (translated as: People and Animals, 1968). Records suggest that the intimate relationship of two protagonists, Antonina and Heck, was exaggerated, as cinematic licence, ever so convincingly. However, it is true to most other elements and facts of the period. Prague, another slightly similar East European city, in the present-day Czech Republic, doubled for Warsaw. It was shot in September 2015.

Screen-writer Angela Workman has a penchant for adapting classic literary material. Born of British parents and raised in the US, Angela’s first film, The War Bride, chronicled the experience of British wartime brides immigrating to foreign lands, where they were not welcome. She is back on familiar WW territory here, and has employed brevity with great élan to both characterise and improvise the fifty-something main players and hundred-odd key situations in the film.

Niki Caro is from New Zealand and known for such films as Whale Rider, North Country and The Vintner’s Luck. These films may not be very well-known in India, but The Zookeeper’s Wife is bound to make significant impact. Even more than the narrative, her ability to paint actors as characters on an animated canvas is spell-binding. Her feminine sensitivities are to the fore in handling scenes featuring animals, birds, insects and tender human emotions, sharply contrasted with a trampling Aryan juggernaut, out to exterminate an entire race, and humiliate their survivors for eternity.

Jessica Michelle Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year, Crimson Peak, Mama), who turned 40 last month, oozes sincerity, fear, practicality, vulnerability, and the rest, while using her anaemic persona to great advantage, and her eyes to radiate pools of emotions. She is one of the producers on the film, and it would be an opportunity lost if she were not. Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh (Moscow, Belgium; The Misfortunates; The Broken Circle Breakdown) is a discovery. If Niki Caro will be compared to Steven Spielberg, Heldenbergh will have to stand on his own against Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, 1993). Comparisons can be odious, but both acquit themselves with honour. Heldenbergh’s performance is a master-stroke in under-acting.

Daniel Brühl (The Bourne Ultimatum, Inglorious Basterds, Captain America: Civil War, Rush) fits the bill naturally with his face and physique, and though you can guess the ambivalence of his leanings, they still come out impressively. It is in the handling of Shira Haas as the rape-victim and traumatised Urszula that will draw a quiet applause from discerning viewers. Haas is an Israeli actress who rose to prominence for her starring performance as Adar, in the 2014 Israeli film, Princess.

Above average support comes from most of the cast members, including

Michael McElhatton as Jerzyk

Iddo Goldberg as Maurycy Fraenkel

Efrat Dor as Magda Gross

Val Maloku as Ryszard Żabiński

Tim Radford as Young Ryszard Żabiński

Goran Kostić as Mr. Kinszerbaum and

Arnošt Goldflam as Janusz Korczak

It is not easy making a film on the holocaust, with the background of a zoo, working with a host of animals and an ocean of emotions—and yet not get carried away. Niki Caro retains her individuality, and, instead of getting carried away, carries you with her.

This zoo opens in Indian cinemas as much more than any zoo you might chance upon visiting. It’s worth a visit for every one of the animals on the farm, as well as a variety of humans whose lives criss-cross, in the tableau of epidemic hate, animal instincts, inherent love and humanity above all.

Rating: *** ½



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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