Jessica Chastain stars in a scene from the movie "The Zookeeper's Wife." (CNS photo/Focus Features)
While Nazi Germany’s premeditated murder of six million Jews has been the subject of more films than perhaps any other historical event, Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife is not a typical Holocaust movie. It sheds light on the heroic, yet unsung Polish resistance during World War II, and it movingly shows how animals awaken our humanity. The true story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński is still relevant today, giving examples of moral courage amidst war and genocide that the world needs again. For these reasons, it is worth seeing.
Based on Diane Ackerman’s book of the same title, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of Jan Żabiński, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife Antonina. During the German occupation of Warsaw, the Żabińskis masterfully hid 300 Jews (all but two of whom survived the war) and dozens of members of the Polish underground in the basement of their villa and in emptied zoo cages (surprisingly, the Żabińskis’ aid to Polish partisans is omitted in this otherwise historically accurate film). Some of these “guests” were hidden in the zoo until they found safe houses elsewhere, while others stayed with the Żabińskis for years. Jan Żabiński headed a platoon in the Home Army, the main grouping of Poland’s anti-Nazi, anti-communist wartime resistance. After being wounded during the Warsaw Uprising, Żabiński was sent to a POW camp in Germany. In the interwar period, Jan Żabiński again headed the Warsaw Zoo, although he eventually fell out of favor with Poland’s new communist elites because of his service in the Home Army and during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919-1921.
In Niki Caro’s latest film, Antonina Żabińska is played by Jessica Chastain, also the executive producer. Chastain is fine as Antonina, and based on her interviews it is clear that the titular zookeeper’s wife is her hero, but this role is not necessarily her best and her accent sounds a bit phony and more Russian than Polish. Antonina Żabińska was truly something of a Dr. Doolittle, and Jessica Chastain’s love for animals is conveyed well in her numerous scenes with all creatures great and small, from elephants to rabbits. Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh is excellent as Jan, and this could be his international breakout.
Beautifully shot and graced by a lovely score by Harry Gregson-Williams, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a deeply moving film. The scenes showing the 1939 blitzkrieg in Warsaw and the complete destruction of the city in 1944 are truly harrowing. In addition to shots of Varsovians evacuating the capital, these scenes inevitably evoke more recent footage of Aleppo. Most of the violence in The Zookeeper’s Wife takes place off-screen. This is likely in part because the producers aimed for a PG-13 rating, but as a result the film’s focus is a unique one for Holocaust and war cinema: that on human kindness. For example, one of the more memorable subplots involves a Jewish girl who has been raped and therefore is so traumatized she is unable to talk; yet she eventually returns to relative normalcy with the help of Antonina’s kindness and her sharing of her love for animals.
Sadly, The Zookeeper’s Wife is still relevant today. In all his folly, man has yet to learn from the horrors of the twentieth century, and today’s world is once more soaked with the blood of the innocent. The fate of Christians in the Middle East and in many parts of Africa and Asia is especially tragic. It is no exaggeration to see parallels between the plight of Christians today and Jews in the 1930s and 1940s; the late Lord George Weidenfeld, a British-Jewish former member of the House of Lords who escaped Nazi Austria in 1938 thanks to the aid of British Quakers, definitely saw parallels between the two groups, and in 2015 he launched an initiative to transport Middle Eastern Christians to safety.
In these times, we need role models like the Żabińskis. In one scene, Antonina says that she loves animals because she can always trust them, whereas one can never be too sure with people. Good Samaritans such as the Żabińskis or Lord Weidenfeld, however, can restore our faith in humanity. While some reviewers have criticized The Zookeeper’s Wife as “hagiographic,” this is not a valid criticism, as in the early scenes of the film both Jan and Antonina are shown having doubts about hiding Jews due to the death penalty levied by the Germans for doing so (in Western Europe, punishments for this “crime” were much milder). However, despite their human weaknesses, the Żabińskis quickly devote themselves and risk everything for love of their neighbors. Viewers of The Zookeeper’s Wife will also learn of another saintly figure who can inspire us in this war-torn age: the film shows Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish doctor, writer of children’s books, and orphanage director who turned down numerous offers for hiding places so that he wouldn’t abandon his orphans on their way to Treblinka.
While the tragic fate of European Jewry during the Holocaust is well known in the West, the heroic and tragic story of the Polish underground is less familiar, and this is another reason to see The Zookeeper’s Wife. During the German-Soviet occupation, Polish society suffered terribly; while 90% of Polish Jews perished, some two to three million non-Jewish Poles were killed as well. Meanwhile, the Poles contributed the fourth largest Allied military to the fight against the Third Reich and created the largest resistance movement in occupied Europe. However, Churchill and Roosevelt needed Stalin to win the war, which made Poland the inconvenient Ally, and the Polish contribution to the Allied victory has been downplayed until recently.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is not only an account of Jan and Antonina Żabiński’s efforts to shelter Jews during the Holocaust; more broadly, the film is a tribute to the Polish underground state. The Polish resistance is shown manufacturing false identity papers to thousands of Jews. Meanwhile, the Polish underground’s valiant but doomed attempt at liberating Warsaw is shown admiringly; at the end of the film, the reader is informed that only six percent of Warsaw’s population stayed in the completely ruined capital until the end of the war. One can hope that The Zookeeper’s Wife will inspire Hollywood to make a film about the Polish airmen who shot down the most German planes during the Battle of Britain or about many other unsung Polish heroes of World War II.
While lacking the raw, brutal power of Roman Polański’s The Pianist or László Nemes’ Son of Saul, The Zookeeper’s Wife is instead focuses on human kindness amidst great evil. Today’s youth, exposed to a culture that makes violence banal, need role models like the Żabińskis. Given the ongoing wars, genocides, and persecutions of Christians, now is the perfect time to remember their witness.