Film & Television

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ — an Extraordinary True Story of Humanity

In case you’ve been on vacation (or under a rock), the Holocaust has been in the news this week. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in justifying our recent attack on Syria, compared Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler. His initial comment — that der Führer himself  “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” — was immediately challenged, and Spicer dug himself deeper by referring to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.” You may interpret this as ignorance, an act of anti-Semitism, or simply the latest and perhaps most unfortunate slip of the tongue from a beleaguered administration. But, the timing, during Passover, made the entire event that much more egregious.

Passover plays a part in the poignant movie The Zookeeper’s Wife as well. About two-thirds of the way through the film, a young Jewish girl, Urszula, asks the family who is hiding her from the Nazis if they can have a seder. The girl (hauntingly portrayed by Israeli actress Shira Haas) is a victim of horrific trauma and has been silent until this point. “I know the prayers by heart,” she assures her gentile protectors. It’s the first moment in the film when you believe the girl will someday be whole again. It’s also an important, symbolic act. While the Nazis are destroying the Warsaw ghetto, a small group of rescuers and rescued are asserting their humanity.

The power of humanity is at the very heart of The Zookeeper’s Wife. The film, directed by Niki Caro and written by Angela Workman (based on the book by Diane Ackerman), tells the story of Antonina Żabiński, her husband Jan, and son Ryszard. Prior to the German invasion of 1939, the Żabińskis lived in an Eden of sorts. Together, they ran the celebrated Warsaw zoo. After the Nazis bombed the city and throughout the occupation, the Żabińskis used the zoo to shelter Jews, saving an estimated 300 men, women, and children. The couple was later recognized by the State of Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations” for their courage.

The fact that the movie is based on the lives of true people somehow makes it simultaneously comforting and terrifying. If you go in with knowledge of the real-life couple, you know that they both survived the war. Antonina died in 1971; Jan in 1974. Yet the risks they take in the course of the two-hour film are palpable. Jan joins the Polish resistance and is wounded and captured. Antonina must deceive a high-ranking Nazi officer. The very fact that they’ve turned their cellar into a sanctuary and waystation for escaping Jews means that they are risking their lives. It is always dangerously clear that discovery would mean instant execution.

Jessica Chastain (two-time Oscar nominee for The Help (2012) and Zero Dark Thirty (2013) is luminous as Antonina. She seems to float above the ugliness and cruelty that permeates occupied Warsaw. And yet, she is undeniably brave. When we first meet her, she displays compassion and a virtual comradery with the myriad animals in her care. That same generosity of spirit toward all God’s creatures drives her to do what is right in the face of unfathomable wrong. Chastain’s accent is impeccable and her performance, like the true story of the woman she portrays, fearless.

In the hands of Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh, Jan is just as brave. He convinces the Nazis to allow him to enter the Warsaw ghetto each day for food scraps. (The zoo has become a pig farm in an effort to feed the German troops. In fact, the Nazis think it’s very funny that Jewish garbage is feeding “treyf.”) And, he smuggles as many people out of the ghetto as he can until a heartbreaking scene when those remaining are loaded onto trains for Auschwitz.

Daniel Brühl, born in Spain but raised in Germany, is chilling as Lutz Heck, “Hitler’s personal zoologist.” A friend and admirer of the Żabińskis prior to the war, he becomes a sharp contrast to them. Where Antonina’s devotion to animals is based on love, his is fueled by selfishness and ambition. He seizes the rarest of the Warsaw zoo’s animals and sends them to Berlin, before coldheartedly shooting the others.

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