The Zookeeper’s Wife from Focus Features (distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures) is a 2017 wartime drama directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider, 2002) and written by Angela Workman, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Dian Ackerman, who, in turn, based her 2007 bestseller on the diaries of Antonina Zabinska.
The Zookeeper’s Wife recounts the true story of Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski, the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, one of the largest and most prolific zoos in 1930s Europe. The film opens benignly in the calm of September 1939 as Antonina (played by a lustrous Jessica Chastain), opens the gates of Miejski Ogród Zoologiczny as a crowd has already gathered to view the many species on display in the zoo. Filmed in Prague, Czech Republic, in late 2015, the setting of the zoo is painstakingly recreated with the unique enclosures and structures evident including the historic gates. Her husband Jan (Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh) has only recently been appointed the director of the Warsaw Zoo and faces the scornful, yet envious advances of Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the head of the Berlin Zoo as “Hitler’s zoologist”.
On September 1, 1939, Antonina and her son Ryszard (with Timothy Radford and later, Val Maloku) are shocked witnesses to the aerial bombardment of Warsaw as German forces storm Poland. The Zoo is not to be spared and bombs raze the cages and kill many of the animals. As Polish resistance collapses under overwhelming odds, Dr. heck arrives at the zoo, beseeching Antonina to let him save the “prize” specimens, which she reluctantly grants, but then learns that his motives are suspect. With the onset of winter, Heck again appears, this time, to slaughter all the remaining caged animals, which he declares is an act of kindness as they would surely die in the cold. Heck, however, takes a certain delight in shooting an eagle himself, then casually telling an aide to have it stuffed.
In a series of titles, dates change from 1939 to 1940 and later, as Warsaw becomes the scene of a monstrous upheaval with Jews first identified and herded into a ghetto; their stores and shops looted. Wearing the dreaded Star of David armbands, two of the Zabrinski’s friends, Maurycy Franekel (Iddo Goldberg) and his wife Magda (Efrat Dor) seek a haven not for themselves, but for an insect collection that was Franekel’s life’s work. Antonia makes an unusual offer to shelter Magda in an attic closet. Jan and his wife take stock of what defiance of the Nazis would mean, but come to the realization that they can save one life.
With the zoo to be closed permanently, Jan and Antonina seek out Heck who has now set up headquarters in Warsaw for his groundbreaking research in animal breeding. The Zabrinskis make a daring proposal to turn the remaining structures into a pig farm to ultimately provide food for the occupying forces. Intrigued, Heck is also looking for a home for his diabolical experiments on recreating ancient beasts.
The Zabrinskis devise an elaborate plan to spirit away Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, even as it is being devastated by a relentless, murderous Nazi juggernaut. Snatching children and adults from the ghetto, over 300 “guests” inhabit the Zabrinski’s home on their way to freedom, with new identification papers and sometimes, even a wig and a makeover to fool the Nazis. Caro’s direction is calm and quiet although the signs of the Holocaust are imbedded in images of children being loaded onto freight cars and a fiery pile of abandoned suitcases. At an advanced screening, the audience was silent although the young person sitting beside me, sobbed audibly at the harrowing sight of the Warsaw Ghetto going up in flames, with a young Ryzard exclaiming that it was snowing, but Antonia realizing what the shards in the air represent.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a solid production, well-acted and historically relevant, yet, is a distant and somewhat dispassionate retelling of a story that to one reviewer, was crassly decried as “Schindler’s List with animals.” Lead Jessica Chastain (also credited as an executive producer), alone, is a worthwhile reason for seeing The Zookeeper’s Wife. In the future, Chastain will be seen in the same way as other screen luminaries, another Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck.
The Zookeeper’s Wife had its world premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival on March 12, 2017; the film is scheduled to be released worldwide on March 31, 2017.