The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on a true story and portrays a pretty accurate account of the Warsaw Zoo and it’s keepers, Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who helped save hundreds of people and animals during the German invasion.
Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife, Antonina (Jessica Chastain) were the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo (Miejski Ogród Zoologiczny), one of the largest and most prolific zoos in 1930s Europe. In the calm of September 1939, Antonina opens the zoo gates. Hours before the zoo opens for the day, a crowd had already gathered to view the many species on display in the zoo. Jan is 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 and “Hitler’s zoologist”.
On September 1, 1939, Antonina and her son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and later, Val Maloku) witnesses the aerial bombardment of Warsaw as German forces storm Poland. The Zoo is not spared, as many animals are killed. Dr. Heck visits the zoo and tries to convince Antonia to let him save the “prize” specimens. Antonina reluctantly consents, but later learns that his motives are suspect. With winter coming, Dr. Heck revisits the zoo, this time to slaughter all the remaining caged animals, which he declares is an act of mercy since the cold would only kill the animals. However, Heck shoots an eagle himself, then casually tells an aide to have it stuffed.
As the scene worsens in Warsaw, Jews are singled out, their stores and shops are looted, and they are eventually herded into the Ghetto. While Two of Zabinskis’ friends, Maurycy Fraenkel (Iddo Goldberg) and his partner Magda Gross (Efrat Dor) looked for a safe place for another friend’s notable insect collection, Antonina 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 Antonia seek out Heck, who has now set up headquarters in Warsaw for his groundbreaking research in animal breeding. The Zabinskis make a daring proposal to turn the remaining structures into a pig farm to ultimately provide food for the occupying forces. In the meanwhile, they devise an elaborate plan to spirit away Jews from the Ghetto. While trying to rescue a group of Jews, Jan discovers a young girl, Urszula (Shira Haas), who had just been raped by two Nazi guards. He rescues her and Antonia and the others hiding at the zoo mentors Urszula through this awful ordeal. The Żabińskis continue to save more Jews, and are even able to disguise women as Aryan by bleaching their hair. In 1942, the Nazis begin deporting Jews out of the Ghetto, and to the death camps. Jan is devastated to see young children being put into cattle cars, leading to the camps. Of course there’s much more to be told but I don’t want to be the one to tell the whole story!
The Zookeeper’s Wife was based on not only Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book The Zookeeper’s Wife but also relied heavily on the author’s use of the diaries of Antonina Żabińska, published in Poland as Ludzie i zwierzęta (translated as: People and Animals) (1968). In key aspects of historical context, the screenplay follows the story of Antonina and her husband, Jan, closely. Both worked at the Warsaw Zoo, although as shown in the film, Antonina was an assistant to her husband who was the director or “Zookeeper”. Animals were part of their family’s life, and the devastation that resulted from not only the attack on Warsaw and the subsequent pillaging of the zoo is well documented. The actions of Lutz Heck and his animal breeding experiments were also a matter of historical record, although the intimate relationship of the two protagonists, Antonina and Heck, were exaggerated. However, the defiance of Nazi occupation and ultimately, the rescue of over 300 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were depicted accurately. The contributions and participation of the Zabinski children, Ryszard and Teresa (credited as Theresa in the film) were also notable.”
The Zookeeper’s Wife is well acted and is a well told story. It is always a sad, heart breaking account of a time that is extremely hard to revisit on screen or otherwise but it is so rewarding to know that there were those who successfully helped and cared enough to put their own lives in danger. Very well done — everyone should see this movie!