The Zookeeper’s Wife




New Zealand director Niki Caro has adapted a true Holocaust story, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, from a book of the same title by Diane Ackerman.


The film opens in the Summer of 1939 in the idyllic art-nouveau style setting of the Warsaw Zoo.  The establishment is managed by Antonina Zabinski (a radiant Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh.)  Antonina has an almost Doolittle-like capacity to communicate and commune with the Zoo’s animal inhabitants as she rides her bicycle through the enclosures greeting them all by name.  But on September 1st, a serpent in the form of the Nazi invasion slithered into this Edenic location and brought ruin and death in its wake.  The initial bombing of Warsaw extensively damaged the Zoo and killed many of the animals.  Within weeks of the occupation, Hitler’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl playing the real life Heck who had a bizarre desire to recreate long extinct species such as the auroch) arrives with trucks to remove the pick of the surviving animals to Berlin Zoo.  Those still remaining are shot due to the impossibility of feeding them.


As the city’s Jews are being herded into the newly formed ghetto, Antonina and Jan devise a plan that will enable them to stay on at the Zoo with their young son and at the same time, try to save at least some of the ghetto’s doomed residents.  They will establish a pig farm in the Zoo’s empty enclosures that can be used to feed the German army.  How to feed the pigs?  Jan gets permission to take his truck into the ghetto regularly to remove vast amounts of garbage that will be used as pig food and at the same time, under the noses of the guards, smuggle Jews out hidden under the refuse in the truck.  The rescued are then hidden under the empty animal cages and in the large basement, some for years, others a few nights until the underground could move them on to safer locations.  The Zabinski’s saved around 300 men, women and children and were later honored in Israel for their achievements.


This is not going to be in the upper echelons of Holocaust-related films compared to works such as SCHINDLER’S LIST and THE PIANIST for example.  While the book was well written, the screen adaptation does not fare as well and some dialogue is clunky, often failing to capture the many layers of this remarkable story in favor of painfully obvious metaphors.  In addition, the Zabinskis (especially Jan) are only lightly fleshed out as characters and large quantities of data about them from the book are absent.  The other aspect that may prove a negative for some viewers (not myself) is the variety of accents in this English-speaking production.  The German Bruhl, the Flemish Heldenbergh and Chastain with her adopted Polish accent (that unlike Meryl Streep’s SOPHIE’S CHOICE effort, was not always consistent.)  There are also some continuity problems resulting from having to squeeze six years of events into two hours.


But there are positives here as well.  Niki Caro uses striking visuals and her direction is fluid and concise.  The scenes in the ghetto are horrific and again remind us of the almost incomprehensible nightmare of one the greatest crimes of the 20th Century.


And occasional wobbly accent or not Jessica Chastain remains one of the most gifted actresses of her generation.  Her capacity to play off the sexual advances of Heck while deceiving him about the hidden souls beneath her floors and simultaneously support Jan who was also engaged in the Polish underground resistance movement, is amazing.


As she tells a young, traumatized Jewish girl who has been raped and beaten “You can never tell who your enemies are and who to trust.  That is why I love animals so much. You look into their eyes and you know exactly what is in their hearts.” 






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