Based on the incredible story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife is a well-made and powerful Holocaust drama, even if it relies on World War II movie cliches on a few occasions and omits some of the most pertinent details – for example, Jan’s involvement in the Polish Underground is only briefly, and slightly haphazardly, referenced here – from Diane Ackerman’s book that is based on the lives of this brave couple.
Antonina, Jan and their son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford and, later, Val Maloku), live a happy life as caretakers for the Warsaw Zoo in late 1930s Poland. Antonina impresses guests at a dinner party by her hands-on work with the zoo’s animals, especially when she saves the life of a baby elephant near the film’s beginning. At one point later in the picture, she tells a young woman who has fled the Nazis that she loves animals because you can “look into their eyes and see what’s in their hearts.”
But the Zabinskis’ tranquility is interrupted when Germany invades Poland and, in one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, the zoo is bombed, killing or setting free a majority of the animals. Antonina meets Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the owner of a Berlin zoo who has been made a chief zoologist by Adolf Hitler, and the two enter into a forced friendship, one that makes Antonina clearly uncomfortable.
When Lutz tells the zookeepers that he will take their prize stock and “protect” them in Berlin, the couple knows that they have no choice. However, Antonina and Jan devise a plan to raise pigs for meat for the German Army at the zoo, but this is merely a distraction as the couple begins to sneak Jews into the zoo via Jan’s truck and then help them to escape. Among those hidden at the zoo include an old friend of Jan’s with an insect collection and a feral young woman who has been raped by Nazis.
The film, although a moving Holocaust drama, also plays as a fairly intense thriller. Will Jan and Antonina get caught? And will she have to consummate her friendship with Lutz in order to protect those who are hiding in the zoo?
In fact, the film is at its best when it plays like a thriller. A scene during which the animals at the zoo can sense that something bad is about to happen – which is followed by the animals roaming free on the streets of Warsaw, much to the shock of its denizens – is particularly well done as are the scenes when Jan smuggles people out of the ghetto. The film’s most powerful moment is when Jan is asked to lend a hand by hoisting young children onto a train that is most surely headed to an extermination camp.
And although too much attention is, perhaps, focused on Lutz’s appearances at the Zalinski’s home and Jan’s jealousy driven by a misunderstanding regarding Antonina and Lutz’s relationship, The Zookeeper’s Wife is, on the whole, a solid addition to the canon of Holocaust films. It’s the type of picture for which some reviews could – and have – made a decent case that it’s a Hollywoodized version of the Holocaust, but its strong performances and unique story make it one worth watching.