Set in a time when hatred and racism were rife and Jews were being tormented, persecuted and murdered, the astonishing true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski is a powerful testimonial to individual heroism in the face of a madman’s cruel and twisted ideology. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a touching and enormously gripping film starring Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinski and Johan Heldenbergh as her husband.
Antonina and Jan are zookeepers at the Warsaw Zoo, and with exemplary tenderness they run it less as a pen and more of a refuge for endangered animals. We see the Zabinskis caring affectionately for their animals, tending to their needs each morning with palpable love. The film’s prelude has many tender moments, including the birth of a baby elephant and ever-so-cute scenes with lion cubs. But this is 1939 Warsaw, and it’s inevitable that this tranquil existence won’t last long.
Their zoo is destroyed during a Nazi air attack and the lives of the Zabinskis change forever as the German army invades and infiltrates Warsaw. Most of the animals face a terribly sad fate. Be warned, the destruction of the zoo will make any animal-lover cringe. It’s a horror to watch, but it’s necessary in order to emphasize the pain that the Zabinskis experience.
The empowering choices Chastain has made as an actress cannot go without notice. From Zero Dark Thirty, Commander Lewis in The Martian, the tenacious Miss Sloane and now The Zookeeper’s Wife, Chastain has immersed herself in roles that celebrate strong women. In The Zookeeper’s Wife, Chastain commands yet another outstanding performance as a historic heroine in war-torn Poland, but her character never reaches for a gun once, nor throws a punch. Her weapon of choice is compassion and humanity. Her character fights against one of the most extreme examples of racism the world has ever seen by opening her heart and her home, and risking her life to take in refugees.
Daniel Bruhl is brilliantly convincing as the genuinely diabolical Dr. Lutz Heck, soon to be infamous as Hitler’s own zoologist who wanted to use the remaining zoo animals in Warsaw for selective breeding experiments back in Berlin. We witness a horrifying transformation as the seeds of power-hungry zealotry grow within and he turns from being trusted friend to corrupt enemy. Bruhl has perfected the art of playing the villain to a point that our feelings of contempt for his deplorable characters seem almost instinctual, especially since Heck’s infatuation with Antonina adds another disturbing level of obsession to his role.
As the horrors of the war deepen, Jan and Antonina turn their own emotional devastation into a quintessential act of humanitarianism and heroism as they put their own lives at risk with a fateful decision to save as many Jews a they can from persecution. Their zoo becomes a fortress for humans rather than the animals. The cages and underground tunnels that once sheltered their animals, now serve to shelter threatened people.
When Jan leaves the relatively safe confines of the zoo to venture out to his devastated city, he encounters ruins at every turn. Director Niki Caro shines as as she gives us rare insight into the destruction of society, with shocking images of the brutality going on outside the zoo walls. Jan is determined to save as many Jewish people as he can, roaming the dangerous streets and using his truck to take them back to the safety of the zoo. On one such excursion he spots a young girl, Urszula, being dragged off the street by German soldiers, her eyes haunted and terrified. The moment is powerfully captured by Caro, hammering home the unspeakable horror of what is about to occur. When Jan is finally able to come to Urszula’s aid, we feel the full weight the soul-destroying moment that has befallen her. Shira Haas is terrific as Ursula in a stellar performance, delivering one of the film’s most powerful scenes as she sings the Passover Seder.
In scenes like these, although the audience is never shielded from the consequences the atrocities happening all around, Niki Caro spares us the graphic depiction of much of the violence. She focuses instead on emphasizing a more inspiring message. The Zookeeper’s Wife reminds us how in times of the worst atrocities and fear, people who resist agaunst all odds can make a difference by showing compassion and empathy though their extraordinary actions. Every performance is impeccable, and Chastain is a magnificent as this little-known heroine who rose to the occasion. Antonina and Jan Zabinski were ordinary humans whose story will work your nerves raw in this riveting film. Aside from the tear-shedding moments, the story is one that will make many us ponder the questions: Under similar circumstances, what would I do? Would I risk my life to save the life of others?
Others may ask: Do we need to see yet another film about the Holocaust? The answer is yes we do, maybe now more than ever. Yes, we truly do need to see films like The Zookeeper’s Wife. Why? For one thing, it’s important to see how such abhorrent behavior can spring up in places we would least expect. Dr. Lutz was once a friend to the Zabinski’s, apparently caring for the animals with the kindness that they do. Lutz was a good colleague and fellow zoologist, but as the Nazi’s rise to power and the evil of the Jewish extermination camps becomes commonplace, we see what can happen to anyone when they get a taste of power, observing how insidious urges take root and manifest as a moral disease that can turn people into monsters.
Poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman wrote the non-fiction bestseller in 2007 and screenwriter Angela Workman developed it for adaptation. One thing thing that makes the film so awe inspiring, with the same sensation that Hidden Figures gave us, is the immense pleasure of learning about the Zabinskis after all these years. Unsung heroes for far too long, their fascinating saga sheds a new light on a story that enriches our lives. Two hours with this couple feels all too brief, but we should be grateful to finally see how Antonina and Jan Zabinskis stood up to calamitous injustice and make a difference. By honoring their brave deeds with such extraordinary grace, The Zookeeper’s Wife now stands as an incredible tribute to their legacy.