Watching the trailer for this movie, I hoped for an emotional, compelling story. This is a true story set in Warsaw during the German occupation of Poland. Not only did it give me the emotion I was expecting but it gave viewers a dramatic and beautiful story about the triumph of love over hate.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” begins in 1939 Poland where Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) run the Warsaw Zoo, the animals flourishing under their care. When the Germans invade Poland, their zoo is devastated, some animals killed in the bombing and others shipped to Germany afterwards. They must report to the Reich’s chief zoologist, Lutz Henk (Daniel Bruhl) as they struggle to hold onto their home. But Jan and Antonina find themselves risking themselves and their son, Ryszard (played by Timothy Radford & Val Maloku as a teen) to hide a friend from the Germans. They begin covertly working for the Resistance as they smuggle hundreds from the Warsaw Ghetto, using their zoo to hide those in danger until they can be gotten to safety. While Jan goes out daily to bring people to safety, Antonina keeps Lutz at bay, playing on his desire for her while she hides those rescued in tunnels beneath the zoo.
This story is emotional and dark at times but as it unfolds, none of it is extraneous. While there are scenes that are heartbreaking, beginning with the devastation of the zoo, each piece builds on the narrative to ratchet up the tension and foreshadow later events in the film. Details build one upon the other, a glance between Jan and Antonina demonstrating their profound love for each other, Antonina stepping between her son and soldiers to keep him safe, these are the elements that grant the viewer a window into their lives and illustrate how much they are risking to help strangers in this war. Not only does it evoke their courage but the other characters are presented doing seemingly insignificant tasks that take on greater meaning over the course of the events in the story, such as stamping cards and creating new identities for the people the Zabinski’s help to safety. The writing is breathtaking as it drives the historical events forward in this engaging, compelling story of the courage of individuals in the face of evil. And while some events are difficult to see on screen, there are never any gratuitous scenes of violence or death. Some scenes are left to the viewer’s imagination, the hints enough to tell you what has actually happened.
One of the choices that made real sense to me was the casting in the film. While Jessica Chastain is an impressive choice for Antonina, the rest of the actors are diverse. Johan Heldenbergh is a leading Flemish actor. Daniel Bruhl is from Spain with a German father. Many of the secondary parts are actors of Polish or Jewish descent. This type of authenticity highlights and elevates the story, giving it strength and dimension. In researching the story for this review, I also discovered that most of the scenes within the film were a factual, true accounting based on the diary of Antonina Zubinski. That level of honesty makes for a profoundly immersive, impactful movie.
The acting matches the writing. Jessica Chastain does a beautiful portrayal of Antonina Zabrinski beginning with her appearance on screen as she visits each of the animals in her zoo, love and compassion for each one shining in her face. That compassion is so clearly developed throughout the movie as she moves from caring for animals to caring for her “human zoo.” The struggle between the character’s desire to help those in need and her disgust for Lutz is so evident in Jessica’s acting. Antonina’s warmth and caring are clearly what drives this film and without the nuanced performance that Jessica Chastain gives us, it would not have worked nearly as well. Not only that, but in the film her character plays the piano. Each piece was actually performed by Jessica, demonstrating a talent and grace I was not expecting.
She is not the only outstanding performance, however. Belgium born Johan Heldenbergh does an incredible job as Jan Zabrinski as he combats the horrors of what he witnesses in the Ghetto with what he sees Antonina doing to prevent the discovery of their ‘guests.’ The horror in his eyes as he sees children being starved and worse is true to what I felt watching events unfold. Daniel Bruhl manages to build a character that is both a man of breeding and one willing to do evil in the name of his government and science. He is compelling in his acting. Even minor characters shine in their roles, Shira Haas is dynamic as Ursula, a young woman brought out of the Ghetto and Iddo Goldberg equally excellent as the Zabrinski’s Jewish friend that they have rescued.
If you are an animal lover, some scenes in this film might break your heart but you would do well to remain in your seat. If you do, you will see the courage of two people who saved 300 people from the Warsaw Ghetto and managed courage in the face of great odds, risking their home and their family to save people they didn’t even know. This is the story of the human spirit to rise above hatred and despair and courageously bring compassion and love to others in horrific danger. It is powerful and emotional, provoking tears while leaving me with hopefulness for the future and like other movies of the Holocaust, it is well worth sitting through every intense scene.
Rating: 5 stars
The time is 1939. The place is Poland, homeland of Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński. Devoted to each other, the couple thrive as personal and professional partners; the Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. With reserves of energy, Antonina rises every day to tend to both her family and their menagerie, as the gates to the majestic zoo open in welcome…
…until the entrance is slammed shut and the zoo is crippled in an attack as the entire country is invaded by the Germans. Stunned, the couple is forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck. Heck envisions a new, selective breeding program for the zoo.
Antonina and Jan fight back on their own terms, and covertly begin working with the Resistance – realizing that their zoo’s abandoned animal cages and underground tunnels, originally designed to safeguard animal life, can now secretly safeguard human life. As the couple puts into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, Antonina places herself and even her children at great risk.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl
Directed by Niki Caro
Written by Angela Workman
Based on the Book by Diane Ackerman