The “Zookeeper’s Wife” is the best of movies for plot, story, acting, visual, music and heart, but it has more. It is a well-made movie with all females at its helm. A historical drama, The Zookeeper’s Wife not only stars a female (Jessica Chastain) in the title role, but was also written by a female (Angela Workman) and directed by a female (Niki Caro).
It shows that even in the worst of circumstances, people with a big heart can and do make a difference.
In the summer of 1939, Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) was the Director of the Warsaw Zoo, with his wife, Antonina Żabińska (Chastain) helping him care for the animals. The couple lived in a villa on the zoo grounds with their young son, Ryszard (played by Tim Radford and then by Val Maloku).
The family was happy with their lives and the zoo was thriving until Sept. 1, 1939. The sudden (although not entirely unexpected) German invasion of Poland heavily damaged the zoo’s structures and killed many of its animals.
With winter approaching, Poland’s new Nazi overlords decided to close the zoo and exterminate the remaining animals. A professional acquaintance, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the director of the Berlin Zoo and the Third Reich’s preeminent zoologist, offers to save some of the Warsaw Zoo’s most prized species, by transferring them to Berlin. With mixed emotions, Jan and Antonina agree.
Months later, they approach Heck (now an SS officer stationed in Warsaw) and ask if they can turn their zoo into a pig farm. Heck agrees to keep the zoo open, seeing this move as a new food source for German soldiers and as an opportunity to conduct animal breeding experiments in an attempt to bring back extinct animal species. He thinks of this solution as a “win-win,” but Jan and Antonina have ulterior motives.
Jan and Antonina have already started using their villa and the buildings and tunnels at the zoo to protect local Jews from the Nazis’ increasing abuses. The pigs on their farm are fed garbage that comes from the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Nazis have consolidated the city’s remaining Jewish population.
When Jan drives his truck to the edge of the ghetto, he smuggles Jewish children out by hiding them under the garbage that he is collecting for his pigs.
When additional methods are employed (and with a little additional help from like-minded locals), adults and even entire families are taken to the zoo grounds, where Antonina and Ryszard do the lion’s share of the work caring for and hiding their “guests.”
Although some of the Jews quickly pass through, others stay for long periods of time, requiring an elaborate system of measures designed to keep everyone safe. It’s a system that becomes increasingly dangerous, and as time wears on, the number of Jews in hiding increases.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a first-rate entry in the chronicles of the Holocaust and a powerful reason to continue to tell the story lest it happen again.
Teri Bayus is the Host of Taste Buds, shown on KSBY Ch. 6 at 3:30 p.m. Sundays and The C-W Ch. 7 at 11 a.m. Sundays, and are available online at: www.tastebuds.tv, and Taste Buds Channel on YouTube. Dinner and a Movie is a regular feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media.