Two films explore life during wartime

'The Zookeeper's Wife' and 'Land of Mine' come to local theaters this week.

click to enlarge Jessica Chastain stars in "The Zookeeper’s Wife." - Photo: Anne Marie Fox/Courtesy of Focus Features
Photo: Anne Marie Fox/Courtesy of Focus Features
Jessica Chastain stars in "The Zookeeper’s Wife."
• How far would you go to help someone in need? Who would you be willing to help? Extended family? Friends? Neighbors? A group of people facing extreme persecution?

The new adaptation of The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman’s international bestselling book, from screenwriter Angela Workman (The War Bride) and director Niki Caro (Whale Rider), starts at a point prior to such human considerations. Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) loves animals; as the wife of Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), the head of the Warsaw Zoo in 1939, it would seem that she must. 

In the early scenes, it is more than evident that Antonina has a rapport with the animals. At one point, she abruptly excuses herself from a dinner party lorded over by Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the odious head of the Berlin Zoo, to save the life of a newborn elephant. While Jan certainly displays a willingness to roll up his sleeves and do whatever is necessary, Antonina’s focus is on the hearts and livelihoods of those in her care. Down to the couple’s young son Ryszard (Timothy Radford), the sense here is rooted in a deep respect for the sanctity of life. 

When the Germans begin their invasion of Poland in September of 1939, Caro quickly sketches out the impact on the zoo after an abrupt and disruptive bombing raid, with soldiers storming the gates and dispatching animals assumed either to be threats to public safety or expendable. With the watchful and ever-leering eye of Heck on Antonina and the zoo, the family makes the obvious decision to attempt to save both their animals and as many Jews as possible. 

As the narrative progresses, we appreciate that nothing Antonina and Jan do comes across as grandly heroic. That is not to say that The Zookeeper’s Wife is without drama. 

Jan’s efforts advance from daring raids where he is removing detained Jews from the ghetto right under the nose of the Nazis to participating in armed action against the occupying forces. And Antonina exploits Heck’s unsavory interest in her, while hiding Jews in the basement and crawl spaces throughout the house and the zoo itself. Every action matters. (Opens Friday at area theaters.) (PG-13) Grade: B

• Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet (Applause) flips on its head the notion of protecting life in Best Foreign Language Academy Award nominee Land of Mine. Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a hardened veteran in the fight against the Germans in World War II, is put in charge of a squad of young German POWs tasked with clearing the beach of thousands of mines. It is a dangerous job, involving possibly incomplete mapping of bomb locations and concerns surrounding defusing the bombs and potential booby traps.

Rasmussen, a proud loyalist to his country, bears the burden of hate against the Germans, but as post-war realities set in, his appreciation for the plight of the young men rises. These boys were not the masterminds of the Third Reich or even on hand at concentration camps where they witnessed and participated in horrific atrocities. They were green soldiers following orders.

And now they find themselves risking their lives, forced to clean up the mess left behind by their superiors. Zandvliet, by removing the specter of the Holocaust, reduces the moral quagmire down to the treatment of POWs by the winning side in a conflict. This type of narrative rarely gets explored in World War II narratives. The tipping of the scales is not as unbalanced here, although that should not diminish the plight and concerns of the Danes who suffered under German occupation.

We see in Rasmussen rage and hatred in its raw form. He is not like his superiors who can sit back in tents, far removed from the prisoners, withholding food and resources as punishment. In order to maintain basic decency, Rasmussen must contain the urge to strike out or watch uncaringly as the boys die in their attempts to remove the bombs.

It is this very internal war that defines Rasmussen’s humanity and his inevitable desire to protect the lives of these boys as best he can. Like The Zookeeper’s Wife, Land of Mine speaks to the universality of the claim that all lives matter. (Opens Friday at the Esquire Theatre.) (R) Grade: B+ 

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