The keepers of the Warsaw Zoo shelter Jews during World War II in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) is a woman who runs the Warsaw Zoo with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). However, after the German invasion of Poland, the zoo is left in shambles, with most of the animals either killed or taken away to Berlin. Appalled by the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, Jan and Antonina come up with a plan to smuggle Jews out of the ghetto and hide them at the zoo. However, the two zookeepers are in constant danger of being caught, particularity from German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), who is using the zoo grounds for breeding.
Niki Karo (Whale Rider) directs this adaptation of the 2007 book by W. W. Norton, which in turn is based on the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who sheltered Jews during the Second World War. As the title of the film suggests, The Zookeeper’s Wife is told primarily from Antonina Zabinski’s perspective, who has the challenge of comforting the hiding Jews, while also making sure that the occupying German soldiers, particularly Lutz Heck, do not suspect what is going on.
For those unfamiliar with the true story it is based on, The Zookeeper’s Wife begins seeming like it is going be a relatively lighthearted film about a couple who runs a zoo. It wasn’t until a title appeared revealing the setting as Warsaw, Poland in 1939 that I clued in that this was going to be a Holocaust-centric story. Indeed, it doesn’t take long before the lighthearted nature of the first act disappears and the film fully transitions into a wartime drama. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a film that follows a similar vein to films such as Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda, in how it tells the story of outsiders who risk everything to help persecuted people during wartime. The Zookeeper’s Wife does enough to stand apart from those other films, particularly in how there is some very real heart to how these zookeepers are willing to risk it all for the Jewish people.
Jessica Chastain does a quite fine job in the lead role of Antonina Zabinski, which Chastain sporting a quite convincing Polish accent. Daniel Brühl also stands out in his performance as Lutz Heck, who appears like a friendly person, but is ultimately no different than any other Nazis. In many ways, there can be some parallels between Brühl’s role in this film and his similar character in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Then rounding out the cast of the film is Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown) as Antonina’s husband Jan, who does the bulk of the dangerous work smuggling Jews out of the ghetto and becomes somewhat resentful of the amount of time Lutz Heck spends with Antonina.
As with many films set during the Holocaust, there are scenes in The Zookeeper’s Wife that are a bit hard to watch. However, all together this is a very inspirational story about a couple of zookeepers, who risked it all to save as many Jews as they could.