THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman and tells the true story of how the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo hid, protected, and ultimately saved hundreds of Jews during the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland during World War II.
The film opens just before the Nazi invasion, in the summer of 1939, and we are introduced to the couple who run the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain). It’s a remarkable place, and the Zabinskis treat the animals like family. Antonina in particular has a way with the animals that enables her to share a special bond with them. We see this firsthand in a touching scene where she tries to save a dying baby elephant while its nervous and frightened parents stand nearby, ready to pounce on her, and yet, because of her sensitivity towards them, they allow her to treat their baby.
We also meet a German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who brushes off talk of an imminent German invasion, as he says he’s a zoologist and keeps out of politics.
But on September 1, 1939, the invasion happens, first with bombs which decimate the zoo, and then with soldiers, and once the Nazis take over, they herd the Jews into ghettos and force them into deplorable living conditions. Jan sees these actions firsthand and is horrified by them.
The bombs destroy most of the zoo and kill many of the animals. Later, their former friend Lutz Heck, now a prominent member of the Nazi party, informs Antonina that all the animals will have to be killed for food for the war effort. However, he tells Antonina that with her permission he will remove her prize animals and bring them to his zoo in Germany where they will be safe, and she agrees.
However, Jan is outraged, believing that Lutz is simply stealing their animals, and when Antonina says that at least Lutz asked her permission, Jan testily answers that as a Nazi Lutz doesn’t need her permission. And as winter approaches, the Nazis kill the remaining animals anyway.
Jan tells Antonina of the horrors of what’s going on inside the ghetto, and they decide they cannot stand by and do nothing. Since the animals are all gone, there is plenty of empty space in the basement beneath the zoo, and they decide to use these empty areas to hide people. With help, they come up with a system of removing people from the ghetto and secretly bringing them to the safety of the zoo, which is no easy task with Lutz and his fellow Nazis constantly on the prowl.
There no doubt will be comparisons between this movie and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) because they tell similar stories, and while SCHINDLER’S LIST is a more powerful movie, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is effective in its own right.
Beautifully shot by director Niki Caro, we at first glimpse the wonderful life the citizens of Warsaw experience before September 1, 1939, in particular the harmonious haven created by the Zabinskis at the Warsaw Zoo. And when things turn harsh after the invasion, the camera does the same. Looking out their window, the Zabinskis see what they at first believe are snowflakes falling from the sky, but upon closer inspection they see that what is falling is ash. The Nazis are burning the ghetto to the ground.
The screenplay by Angela Workman based on Ackerman’s book doesn’t overplay its hand. The Nazi atrocities are well-known— or at least they should be— and the story while not sugar-coating things does not go out of its way to show these horrors first hand either; hence the PG-13 rating. Yet, there are still some jarring scenes, like when two Jewish women are shot in the head at point-blank range.
I’m a huge fan of Jessica Chastain, and I really enjoyed her performance here as Antonina Zabinski. She especially captures the sensitivity Antonina possessed which allowed her to work so closely with the animals; they trusted her. Likewise, when it’s up to her to work closely with Nazi Lutz Heck, her skills once more come into play. She has a way with him as well, and like the animals in the zoo, he trusts her. This allows them to continue to hide the Jews under the noses of the Nazis. For a while, anyway.
As much as I enjoyed Chastain, the best performance in the movie belongs to Johan Heldenbergh as Antonina’s husband Jan. As Jan, Heldenbergh displays a wide range of emotions, from strength, to horror and outrage at what the Nazis are doing to his Jewish friends, to jealousy over his wife’s and Lutz’ relationship, even though he knows that its integral to the success of their efforts. It’s a deep resonating performance, and while Antonina spends most of her time at the zoo working with Lutz, it’s Jan who’s active in the streets of Warsaw and who is personally responsible for whisking the Jews out of the ghetto. As such, he sees much more of the atrocities than his wife does, and it takes a heavy toll on him. The scene where he watches children being loaded onto the box cars of the crowded train is one of the more powerful images in the film.
Daniel Bruhl makes for a sufficiently villainous Nazi, Lutz Heck. However, since he’s for the most part “tamed” by Antonina, he’s nowhere near as despicable as some other movie Nazis. His actions are somewhat muted because of his feelings for Antonina.
The rest of the cast does a nice job in support of these three main actors. Iddo Goldberg is memorable as their Jewish friend Maurycy Fraenkel, and Shira Haas stands out as a young girl Jan rescues from the ghetto after she is raped by Nazi soldiers.
Michael McElhatton is memorable as the Rabinski’s loyal employee Jerzyk who stays with them through the whole ordeal and risks his life for them on numerous occasions. And while McElhatton appears on GAME OF THRONES, I just saw him in a horror movie I liked, THE HALLOW (2015).
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a potent movie about a horrible time in our world’s history, and it tells an uplifting story about bravery in the face of unspeakable horrors and says a lot about the human spirit. In spite of the Nazis threat, the Rabinskis refused to stand by and do nothing.
As the world continues to be a sadly dangerous place, it’s a message people the world over should take to heart and remember. Atrocities need not be accepted.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.