The Zookeeper’s Wife is, in some ways, “another Holocaust movie.” It is a standard cinematic effort to depict an ugly part of history some of us would rather like to forget—but that is precisely why it is a film worth seeing.
The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction book of the same name, depicts how a Polish couple helped save 300 Jews from killer Nazis at the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. The English-language film, shot primarily in the Czech Republic, opens in an idyllic Garden of Eden-like setting in 1939, just days before Germans invade Poland, and concludes nearly seven years later after the war’s end.
Two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark 30, The Help) stars in the titular role as Antonina Zabinski, described by distributor Focus Features as “a real-life working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds.” Zabinski’s husband, respected zoologist Jan Zabinski, is portrayed by Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown). The pair come across as steady, normal folks, passionate about caring for the many animals at the zoo—until the zoo is raided and their focus becomes saving the lives of Jewish neighbors shoved into Warsaw’s miserable ghetto. The Zabinskis and their young son (Timothy Radford and Ryszard Zabinski), each playing their part in the Resistance, hide Jews secreted from the ghetto for days, or even years in their villa’s basement and in subterranean tunnels that previously sheltered animals. Their bombed-out zoo operates as part of an underground railroad for escaped Jews, remarkably, right under the noses of Nazi soldiers.