A film review by Craig J. Koban April 23, 2017


2017, PG-13, 124 mins.


Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinski  /  Johan Heldenbergh as Jan Zabinski  /  Daniel Brühl as Lutz Heck  /  Val Maloku as Ryszard Zabinski  /  Martha Issová as Regina Kenigswein

Frederick Preston as Miecio Kenigswein

Directed by Niki Caro  /  Written by Angela Workman, based on the book by Diane Ackerman



As a student of history, I've always found the historical war genre to be right up my alley.  In particular, I appreciate films that find a unique viewfinder through which to look at and examine past events that we think have been covered from all possible angles.  

There have been countless dramas about World War II and the Holocaust, but THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE - based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman - finds a fresh and mostly unseen perspective of the events in question.  Somewhat like SCHINDLER'S LIST, the film chronicles how the decent and noble actions of seemingly ordinary people saved lives that would have been slaughtered under Nazi rule.   

The somewhat fictionalized, but mostly fact-based film deals with Antonina and Jan Zabinski (played impeccably well by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh respectively), proprietors of the Warsaw Zoo.  Opening in 1939, the film showcases what a peaceful and inviting animal commune the couple have established, which features a rich menagerie of exotic creatures large and small.  These opening sections of the film are wonderful, showing Antonina's routine of partaking in daily zoo rounds while welcoming in eager patrons.  Running the zoo is not without peril, though, as one early scene demonstrates, which involves Antonina's coming to the nocturnal rescue of a baby elephant that's just been born with blocked air passages...and all while trying to ease the concerns of the infant's panic stricken and much larger mother. 



All in all, the Zabinski's zoo is an animal paradise that thrills its daily customers, but this mostly ideal human-animal cohabitating paradise is changed forever when Nazi Germany invades Warsaw, laying it and the zoo to waste with a devastating air strike (the film never shies away from showing how the ravages of war affects both people and animals).  With their zoo left in ruins and most of their animals destroyed as well, the Zabinskis are left emotionally rattled as to what will happen to their passion project and livelihoods.  When the Nazis swoop in and decide to use the Warsaw zoo as a new base of operations, Jan and Antonina realize that the continued future of their zoo seems grim.  Even though a Nazi zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), expresses to them a yearning to help their remaining animals, the couple still remains steadfastly suspicious of the new occupying force.

It's at this precise stage when the Zabinskis hatch a fairly ingenious plan: When they begin to see how countless local Jews in the ghettos are being herded up like cattle and summarily dislocated from their homes and families, the couple springs into action and decides to round up as many as they can and hide them - nearly in plain sight - in newly vacant underground pens at the zoo.  Part of their audacious scheme involves retrofitting the zoo into a pig farm to feed the troops, which will involve smuggling in Jews from the Warsaw ghettos under gallons of rations to feed the pigs.  Jan and Antonina become largely successful in their highly risky endeavor, but when the threat of having their new Jewish residents being discovered, the Zabinskis begin to feel remarkable pressure to preserve the secrecy of their mission despite being under the constant scrutiny of Heck. 

THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE is a fascinating curiosity piece in the sense that it tells a fact based tale of the Holocaust that I'm quite sure that most people entering the cinema will have probably never heard of.   Again, considering the vast and endless permutations of WWII dramas that litter the cinematic world, THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE deserves points for legitimately segregating itself well apart from the crowded pack.  That, and the central tale of the utterly selfless actions of the Zabinskis is undeniably gripping, moving, and inspirational.  What they did for those Jewish refugees was not easy, nor was it safe.  Yet, THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE celebrates the courage of regular people during times of war as well; all in all, the couple saved the lives of nearly 300 Jewish people, with only two of them in question being re-captured by the Nazis and murdered.  300 may seem like an insignificant amount, but considering the circumstances surrounding the Zabinki's risky plan, it's a small miracle that they saved as many as they did. 

THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE has an authentically rendered period and production design that doesn't draw needless attention to itself, thanks large in part to director Niki Caro's (WHALE RIDER) low key and understated direction.  Beyond the film's handsomely mounted look and feel, THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE contains many moments of haunting power under Caro's tactful eye.  The initial bombing of Warsaw is portrayed in all of its devastating magnitude (animal lovers in particular may have difficulty watching the zoo's denizens being murdered by the dozen during the onslaught).  Beyond capturing the stark visceral aesthetic of the film's cruel world and times, Caro also taps into some deeply poignant subplots.  One involves an emotionally damaged teenage Jewish girl, the victim of Nazi gang rape, that Antonina tries to heal in the best manner she knows how via the soothing therapy of animals.  These individual moments in THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE have a real lingering power. 

Leading this film's dramatic charge is the reliably dedicated Jessica Chastain, who once again demonstrates here a deep commitment to immersing herself in her character and providing another richly layered performance.  Even though her Slavic accent is initially a bit distracting, Chastain is nevertheless soft spokenly empowered in relaying Antonina's headstrong courage and resolve to do the right thing.  She's flanked by the equally stellar work of co-star Johan Heldenbergh as her gallant husband.  Daniel Bruhl is one of our most underrated actors and is in equally fine form playing Heck, but I'm beginning to wonder whether or not the fine performer will be typecast for the rest of his career for playing Nazis.   

Arguably, the weakest aspects of THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE involves a strangely delineated love triangle (completely fabricated) between Heck, Antonina, and Jan that feels like it's from a whole other kind of sappy and melodramatic WWII romance film.  I also don't think that the script really knows what to do with Bruhl's character and seems indifferent as to whether he should be seen as a figure of pure evil or one that's driven to evil because of his affiliation to Nazi Germany.  The film's final act also seems hastily rushed and never feels as fully formed and confidently orchestrated as the story's first two thirds.  Perhaps trying to cram in roughly seven years of history into a film that's barely two hours doesn't help matters much either; the story of the Zabinskis might have benefited substantially more from, say, an HBO mini-series treatment than a feature film. 

Still, I'm inclined to recommend THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE, mostly because it's made with the most honorable of intentions and is lovingly crafted and acted.  The underlining themes here of the unwavering power of human kindness will most certainly strike a chord with viewers, not to mention that, in the end, the story of the Zabinskis struggling to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of people that would have mostly likely had their lives ended under Nazi rule deserves our attention.  THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE isn't a transformative and unforgettably searing Holocaust story that will permanently get under your skin, but it sheds a strong light on the heroic actions of a brave few that fundamentally changed the lives of countless others.  

And that's worth celebrating. 


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