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The Zookeeper’s Wife (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

The Zookeeper’s Wife


Starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Efrat Dor, Timothy Radford, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas, Michael McElhatton, Val Maloku, Martha Issová, Daniel Ratimorský, Frederick Preston, Theo Preston, Viktoria Zakharyanova and Goran Kostic.

Screenplay by Angela Workman.

Directed by Niki Caro.

Distributed by Focus Features. 125 minutes. Rated PG-13.

The true life story behind The Zookeeper’s Wife is so fascinating that it’s amazing that it has taken over 70 years for it to be turned into a film.

Jan and Antonina Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain) were a loving married couple who had found their calling running the Warsaw Zoo in Poland with their young son. Antonina is a remarkably empathetic, open and thoughtful woman, which has contributed to her amazing ability to care for all species.

Then World War II imposes. The Nazis invade Warsaw, steal or kill most of the zoo animals, and start rounding up all of the Żabiński’s friends and force them to live in a ghetto. At great risk to themselves, Antonina and Jan use the empty pens in the catacombs of the zoo to hide Jewish refugees. Antonina stays home at the zoo to keep their guests safe and calm, Jan ventures into the ghetto to help spirit away other Jews to safety.

It’s a wondrous story; full of beauty, horror, death, love and bravery.

As a movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story very well, though perhaps not quite as well as such an important tale deserves.

For example, in a world where you would think it would be impossible to underestimate the atrocities committed by the Nazis, seeing the attacks from the viewpoint of the beautiful, majestic and innocent animals of the zoo add yet another layer to the hideousness of the acts.

Which strangely works to the detriment of the film, slightly. As presented by the film, and I’m certain this was not expected or intended, the animals slightly overshadow the humans. One problem is that with few exceptions, the Jewish refugees are not given enough opportunity to become three-dimensional characters.

Also, some of the atrocities of the Nazis are slightly whitewashed here. For example, Antonina feels threatened when head Nazi Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) seems to take sexual interest in her, but the sexual harassment is limited to him rubbing up upon her and washing her hands suggestively. It seems likely that there was much more to it in the real story.

However, these are a few slight problems in what is mostly a truly fascinating story.

As always, Chastain is terrific in the role (though occasionally her Polish accent wavers). The rest of the cast, mostly international actors, also do quite well in their roles, particularly with Brühl making his Nazi character much more nuanced than the slightly cartoonish bad guy he is written to be.

The Zookeeper’s Wife does a very good job at telling an extraordinary, mostly forgotten story, and for that we should be grateful.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: March 31, 2017.

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