The Zookeeper’s Wife: How A Zoo Saved Jews

(l-r) Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain star as Jan and Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro's THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features

The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of the heroic efforts by Dr. Jan Żabiński and Antonina Żabińska to save Warsaw’s Jews from the Nazis.

When we first meet Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) in 1939, the two are caretakers for the Warsaw Zoo. They go through their daily routine until the Nazis begin their occupation of Poland. It’s not long thereafter when the Reich’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) begins his takeover the Zoo. Both Jan and Antonina start helping the Resistance as a result. They certainly have the space to do so with cages now going unused. It’s just a matter of making sure that they keep everyone safe from the Nazis. Some stay with them for a little bit. Others stays for an even longer time. All in all, they would save around 300 Jews if not more. Only two people didn’t make it and that’s probably because someone turned them in.

It’s fascinating to watch Dr. Jan Żabiński go from a stewart at the zoo to fighting for the Polish Resistance. Niki Caro focuses less on WW2 itself but it would be unfair of the film to not at least show some fighting or destruction. Interestingly enough, Johan Heldenbergh’s favorite book is The Painted Bird, which was adapted into film a few years ago.

Urszula (Shira Haas) may not have much to say on screen but she certainly makes up for it through body language alone. While this film is based on a true story, Urszula was created exclusively for the film. One also can look at the horror on the orphaned Urszula’s face as being representative of the Shoah as a whole. I don’t think many of us knew four years ago that Haas would be a star in the making. And yet, she’s very much a star in 2020.

In other casting, you have Efrat Dor portraying sculptress Magdalena (Magda) Gross. Iddo Goldberg portrays her life partner, attorney Maurycy Fraenkel. They are close friends of the Żabińskis, too. Both actors lost family in the Holocaust.

It took a decade to bring this film to the big screen. Honestly, this film should have been on the screen much sooner.  Holocaust stories are important. We need them especially when there is a rise in Holocaust denial. The story about the Warsaw Zoo is one that needed to be told. When you look at what the Żabińskis did, they saved lives. They did what they knew to be right even if it meant risking their lives. Moreover, they really couldn’t ignore it because the Warsaw Ghetto was right across from the Warsaw Zoo itself. Meanwhile, I love what Jessica Chastain brings to her performance. If it were up to me, she would have been up for an Oscar for her performance.

The main thing that I don’t like about The Zookeeper’s Wife is how Angela Workman’s script plays up a non-existent love affair between Żabińska and Heck. Workman adapts her script from Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book. This film already has so much drama with showing their efforts to save Polish Jews from the Nazis. It did not need to add a love affair that never happened. Another falsehood in the film is Heck’s auruch experiments. While the Nazis did try, it didn’t happen in Warsaw but in Berlin. In the long term, these fictional add-ons do not really change how I feel about this underrated film.

There’s a lot to admire about the production aesthetics. The small details go a long way especially in recreating the Warsaw Ghetto. They really depict the living conditions in the Ghetto. The film might not be easy to watch on this front but it adds authenticity to the film.

It’s interesting though to watch this film even as Poland tries to rewrite its own involvement in the Holocaust. What we have now are Polish courts ordering that Holocaust scholars apologize to families! While that’s happening, it makes me grateful to see stories like this one especially where the Resistance fights back. Obviously, the film focuses less on the war itself than on what they did to save Polish Jews.

The Zookeeper’s Wife had all the ingredients to contend for an Oscar. However, the film was released much too early in the year to really be a factor. That’s not to say that March releases aren’t usually considered but this film didn’t quite have the impact. Financially, the film made even less money than Woman in Gold released a few years earlier. Dr. Jan Żabiński and Antonina Żabińska were named to the Righteous Among the Nations and The Zookeeper’s Wife shows why.

SCREENWRITER: Angela Workman
CAST: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Iddo Goldberg, Efrat Dor, Shira Haas, Val Maloku, Timothy Radford, Arnošt Goldflam, Waldemar Kobus, Goran Kostic, Marián Mitas, Jitka Smutna, and Daniel Brühl

Focus Features released The Zookeeper’s Wife on March 31, 2017.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.