Free Press Journal

The Zookeeper’s Wife: Compelling wartime saga

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Film: The Zookeeper’s Wife

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Brühl, Johan Heldenbergh, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas Michael McElhatton, Timothy Radford,Val Maloku

Director: Niki Caro


How far would you go to save a life? From time, immemorial, women have, sometimes, used their seductive powers to attain certain objectives. In the war drama under review, the titular heroine employs feminine wiles at great risk to herself and family, for a worthy cause: to save Jews from the Nazis in the Second World War.

Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) Zabinski saved 300 Jews and have been immortalised as Righteous Gentiles (along with Oskar Schindler) in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

Based on the bestseller of the same name by Diana Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife opens with a beautifully shot sequence of the animals in the sylvan precinct under the heroine’s care in the city of Warsaw. It is the summer of 1939 and Poland has yet to feel the full force of the Nazi jackboot stomping across Europe. Berlin zoologist Lutz (Daniel Bruhl) Heck is dismissive (and ignorant of Nazi genocidal intentions) at a party which is attended by Antonina.
He will, eventually, prove he is not a barbarian although he will not hesitate to shoot down a majestic eagle (for preservation as an ornithology museum piece) and acquiesces to the rounding up of Jews and the deaths of animals first in Luftwaffe bombings and later, the shutdown of the zoo. “Is this necessary?” Antonina asks of the heart-rending killings to which there is no satisfactory reply. Your reviewer was flummoxed; consider the fact that among the Nazis were greens who planted thousands of acres of trees across Germany.

Antonina and Jan draw up a plan to hide the Jews in the zoo until the Resistance can help them reach safety elsewhere. The Nazis are told a pig farm is being set up for which garbage will be collected from the Jewish ghetto. The garbage route is successfully used to smuggle out at many Jews, one of whom is a pretty girl named Urszula (Shira Haas) who’s raped (off camera). Food is scarce and in and outside the ghetto, Jews survive on pig meat, in violation of their kosher (dietary) laws.

When the situation escalates, the Zabinskis are advised to leave Warsaw but Antonina refuses. Her beloved Poland is overrun by the Nazis and later, as the end credits inform viewers, by the Russians. “You can never tell who your enemies are or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I prefer animals to people. You can look into their eyes n know exactly what they think,” Antonina says in a key scene. The acting,especially by Chastain,Bruhl and Heldenbergh, is sterling. The movie, set during a grim period of history, is inspirational.