Based on the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, Warsaw Zookeepers played by Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is the tale of a couple who followed their conscience, rescuing more than 300 Jews during World War II.
The action begins in 1939, months before the German invasion of Poland. The zoo is a sanctuary, run by Jan and Antonina, who treat the animals almost like family. “Good morning sweetheart,” Antonina says, greeting a tiger before giving CPR to a baby elephant later in the day. Then Nazi bombs fall, scattering the animals, effectively shutting down the zoo. When Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) offers to move the zoo’s surviving animals to Germany for safe-keeping and selective breeding in the hope of bringing back from extinction one of Europe’s most imposing creatures, the aurochs, the Zabinskis make a counter offer. They propose running the facility as a pig farm, using garbage from the Warsaw Ghetto as feed. Their selling point? It will provide food for German soldiers. Their motive? To create a secret safe haven for Warsaw Ghetto Jews, a “human zoo,” as Antonina wistfully calls it.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a simply but effectively told hero’s journey. To her credit director Niki “Whale Rider” Caro has made a handsome movie about a harrowing time. It looks and feels like a big budget period piece, befitting the gravity of the story, but despite some memorable scenes the film feels like it left much of the drama unplumbed. It’s an important story but we don’t spend enough time with the rescued people to truly get a sense of their lives and the movie feels incomplete without as a result.
Chastain holds the centre of the story, providing a steely, compelling—although distractingly accented—character. She shines in her scenes opposite Brühl, a series of cat-and-mouse meetings where she feigns friendship, bonding over a shared love of animals, with the Nazi to keep her hidden dependants safe.
Despite narrative flaws “The Zookeeper’s Wife” contains unforgettable images. The shots of children being comforted by their teacher as they are loaded onto Nazi trains are as memorable as they are heart wrenching. It also contains many instances of animal cruelty. I’m sure no animals were actually harmed during the making of this movie but it doesn’t make the killing of the zoo animals any easier to watch.