“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” playing this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, is based on a remarkable true story. Also opening is “Personal Shopper,” starring Kristen Stewart as a medium trying to contact her dead brother.
In “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” Antonina Zabinski runs the Warsaw, Poland, zoo with her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski, during World War II. Diane Ackerman wrote the best-selling story, and the film, starring Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (“The Twilight Saga”) and Johan Heldenbergh (“Broken Circle Breakdown”), is directed by Nicki Caro (“Whale Rider”). Particularly in the case of Antonina, the zoo’s animals are well cared-for and much loved. The viewer sees her nuzzling lion cubs, and watches a camel calf following his caregiver.
This peaceful setting is shattered in 1939 when the Nazis bomb the zoo and take over Poland. The animals, run helter-skelter, many dying, and once the chief Nazi zookeeper, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) arrives, plans are made to kill the zoo’s remaining inhabitants. Antonina and Jan, however, devise a clever plan. They offer to raise hogs to feed the invading soldiers, and Lutz agrees, deciding to send the best of the animals to Berlin for a eugenics project.
The Zabinskis also develop a surreptitious plan to bring Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto — otherwise certain to end up in the Nazi death camps — and hide them in the zoo’s basement. Jan transports the Jews under the garbage he collects from the ghetto and uses to feed the hogs. Meanwhile, Lutz takes a shine to Antonina, and she encourages a flirtation as a way to keep their secret operation from discovery. By the time the war ends, they have rescued 300 Jews; the Warsaw Zoo remains open today.
French director Olivier Assayas, who won Best Director at Cannes, and actress Kristen Stewart team up a second time for the ghost story “Personal Shopper.” Their first collaboration was “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014), for which Stewart won a César for Best Supporting Actress.
An ambitious film, “Personal Shopper” depicts the life of Maureen Cartwright (Stewart), who works buying clothes for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), an international celebrity. Her twin brother Lewis has died of a heart attack a few months previously, and Maureen, who suffers from the same potentially lethal heart ailment as Lewis, is mourning him. The two — both mediums — had made a pact that whoever died first would contact the other. Maureen makes many efforts to receive a message from Lewis. In the meantime, she tries on Kyra’s clothes without permission, traveling between London and Paris. A number of disturbing events keep her anxious and fearful, and social media contribute to her state of mind.
A highly respected director, Assayas nevertheless mixes plotlines in ways that can be confusing and ambiguous. This assay into the spirit world may intrigue some viewers, but others may find it frustrating to follow.
Information and tickets are available for these two films at mvfilmsociety.com, as well as for other screenings at the Film Center.