Warsaw 1938-39. It’s a bright Sunday, the citizens of Warsaw wander into the Warsaw Zoo, run by Antonina and Jan Zabinski (a stolid Johan Heldenbergh and a luminous Jessica Chastain).

I brace myself for a bit in the almost Disney-like idyllic opening, as Director Niki Caro presents a golden-haired, fair Antonina pedaling her bike throughout her domain, like a Polish Snow White, while storks and baby kangaroos, peacocks and raccoons trot around beside her.

With a mouthful of popcorn, I mumble a prayer that the storks and assorted creatures aren’t going to start singing Churchill and Morey’s 1937 Snow White song “With a Smile and a Song.”

Of course Caro is setting us up for a jolt, but I’ll admit, she gave me pause.

Suddenly the bombers roar over the rooftops and drive the apes and lions and tigers mad. Then the bombs drop on Warsaw, and, of course, the zoo. Poland is at war with Germany.

Who should arrive but Hitler’s own personal zoologist, Col. Lutz Heck, (Daniel Bruhl) who takes over the zoo, develops a passion for Antonina, and offers to save the animals by shipping the best of them, and Antonina? To Germany and the famous Berlin Zoo.


When it becomes clear that most of her Jewish friends are being sent away or imprisoned in the Jewish quarter of the city, Antonina comes up with an idea. She and Jan offer to turn the zoo into a pig farm, to provide food for the occupying forces. It is accepted, and the Zabinskis set out to collect all the garbage in the Jewish sector to feed the pigs, and with the same brush of brilliance, rescue as many Jews and house them in the caverns of the old zoo. How they accomplish this is clever, but unpleasant and risky, and fraught with daily, moment-by-moment danger.

Caro gives us a richly detailed, harrowing and suspenseful portrait of events that played out over a four-year period.

“Zookeeper’s Wife” is taken from Diane Ackerman’s book which, in turn, was floated out of Antonina’s diaries, and screenplayed by Angela Workman. The film, beautifully filmed by Andrij Parekh, never lessens its electric current of suspense and anxiety as the Jews, as they always did, live hushed lives in dark cages, where once the tigers and lions slept.

Editor David Coulson aids Caro in jolting the film into even higher levels of intensity by juxtaposing in a series of cuts: the paranoia of the zoo’s dark suspense with the historic Jewish uprising in the ghetto, and the ultimate burning and evacuation of its doomed survivors.

Heldenbergh as Jan Zabiniski, is perfectly played as a tough, solid man who grows even tougher and more heroic as time goes by.

Bruhl as Lutz, the Nazi zoologist, gives a refreshingly three-dimensional chilling blend of a sweet-caring animalist, and the eventual wintry-hearted racist, who loses his heart to Antonina and his soul to his party. It was, for me, a breathtaking relief not to have seen the pompous, cartoonish work of Hollywood’s “in house Nazi” Christoph Waltz cast in the part.


Of course, each moment of the film is illuminated by the gifts and glow of Chastain, who gets better and better in each new role. There may be a tad too much Disney’s “Snow White” in the prologue as she cuddles the bunnies, actually sleeps with tiny lion cubs, all of which keeps “Zookeeper” from being a greater film, but she cuts through it when faced with moments of decision.

Despite its flaws, “Zookeeper’s Wife” is powerful to watch, and in these times as antisemitism rears its ugly face, it’s important.

Never forget.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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