The Zookeeper’s Wife

When the film begins, the Warsaw Zoo is reproduced as it was in early 1939 (though filming is in Prague), with Antonina Zabinski (played by Jessica Chastain) petting and showering love on many animals as she begins the morning and continues throughout the day and night. The zoo’s curator, her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), and other workers are soon introduced. When Poland is attacked on September 1, the first instinct of many is to flee, but no trains are operating, so they must await the inevitable takeover by the Wehrmacht. But the Nazis are not animal lovers, so they soon destroy much of the grounds, kill and loot many animals, and use the facility as an armory. The next indignity is to force Jews into a ghetto maintained by walls. The Zabinskis then have the bright idea of operating a pig farm on the remaining grounds “to feed the soldiers.” As pigfeed, Jan drives into the ghetto to collect refuse, but he hides a few Jews each time in the truck, and they are housed in the large space of cages and tunnels under the zookeeper’s house, now emptied out, until they can escape to safe houses. During some of the film, Jan’s extensive role in the underground is revealed. In all, some 300 were saved, though two were killed en route to safe houses. Later, the ghetto is burned to the ground as Jews were packed into rail cars headed for extermination camps. To demonstrate the tension during the period when the Jews are being held, the film shows the emotions experienced by the couple and their son at the mercy of the Nazi in charge of the city, zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). The film features an episode when Russians are entering the city, forcing the Nazis to flee, and then skips one year later to a reuniting of the zoo personnel and the return of Jan, who had been wounded while firing on the departing Nazis. Titles at the end indicate that the Warsaw Zoo is now operating again, though filmviewers are not treated to a picture during the running of the credits. The details are based on recollections of the couple, as integrated into the book of the same title by Diane Ackerman released earlier in 2017. Directed by Niki Caro, The Zookeeper’s Wife has been nominated by the Political Film Society for awards as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2017. MH