By Cynthia Biddlecomb
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a long-awaited film based on the popular 2007 novel by Diane Ackerman.
The story is based on actual events during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, Poland. Not only is the story compelling, it is an important one to learn.
Antonina and Jan Zabinski were the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo from 1928 to 1951, he the PhD Zoologist and she the heart of the place. There are heart-warming scenes early in the movie featuring the lovely Antonina (Jessica Chastain), her magic touch with the animals and their apparent devotion to her. Jan (Johan Heldenburgh) is a scientist and zootechnician who made the zoo an enjoyable place for the public to visit. It still, to this day, sits just across the Vistula River from Old Town Warsaw.
A German zoologist named Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) comes from the Berlin Zoo on a professional visit, consulting with Jan about the animals. He is attracted to Antonina and her way with the creatures.
Soon after, the Germans bomb Warsaw, hitting the zoo quite often and killing many animals. Lutz Heck returns, this time in Nazi S. S. uniform, and he asks Antonina if he can help save the prize stock from their zoo by taking the animals to Berlin. When he comes back with the trucks, any animals deemed “not valuable” are shot by Nazi soldiers on his orders. Antonina knows she must risk her safety to keep Heck friendly. Jan is troubled by what the Nazis intend for Warsaw and especially for their friends in the ghetto.
As the Germans lock down the Warsaw ghetto, Jan tries to find a way to save their friends. Antonina suggests they use the basement cage areas to hide them, right under the noses of the Nazis who occupy the zoo each day.
The clever scheme works, but the Zabinski’s take huge risks to pull it off. In the end, Jan and Antonina saved 300 Jews. In fact, they are memorialized at Yad Vashem where the State of Israel honors the “Righteous Among Nations” (among them, Oskar Schindler).
This important story may be difficult to watch, as are most Holocaust movies. Husband and wife endure difficult ethical decisions made in order to hide their rescues. We are witness, in the film, to evidence of the terrible atrocities perpetrated in the name of the Nazi Fatherland.
But throughout it all, Antonina’s love of living things is shared with their “guests”; ultimately, hope transcends all. So very many losses, so many horrible things they and their young son have witnessed, but in the end, the Zabinski’s are reunited and the zoo and Warsaw are slowly rebuilt.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is rated “PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking.” The heart-wrenching elements of this story will make it a difficult film for some. But in order not to repeat such history, we need to hear these stories, to break the cycle of violence and oppression. If you are in the right mood to do that, go and see this film.
It is beautiful in many subtle ways, embracing the value of life and hope, and the extraordinary courage of so many, who fought back against genocide and fascism in their own small ways.