Jan and Antonina Żabiński oversee the care of exotic animals at Poland’s Warsaw Zoo as news of German Nazi aggression builds in 1939. When the Nazis seize control of the city, the Zabinskis find themselves drawn into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Hitler’s chief zoologist, Lutz Heck. The Żabińskis stand for the outcast Jews, keeping them hidden behind the veneer of the zoo, hoping their courage will be enough to save lives in The Zookeeper's Wife.
In the film based on non-fiction author Diane Ackerman’s adapted screenplay, Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina, a Polish animal lover and rescuer of humans. Johan Heldenergh plays Jan, who history notes as the architect of more than three hundred rescues during the war. But thanks to Antonina’s unpublished diary, it is largely through her perspective that we see the horrors of the Nazi invasion and the subsequent triumph of the human spirit. She is the one first willing to protect a friend; Jan is the one who argues that they’re called to save whoever they can; their son is the one for whom they model what real love should look like, even at a cost.
Set against them is the calm, scientific face of depravity. Early on, it becomes clear that Heck (Daniel Brühl) has taken an unwelcome interest in Antonina, which becomes a tool that the zookeepers use to their advantage. While the Nazi zoologist plucks the primary animals from the zoo to take them to Berlin, he allows for the Żabińskis to use their zoo to create a pig farm to feed his troops, while using his interest in reverse engineering long-lost species to continue to call on Antonia. Behind the subterfuge of acquiring slop for the pigs to eat and entertaining Heck, the couple transports some Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto to the underground pipeline of escape while hiding others within their zoo. Heck’s interest in animals blinds him to the way that the couple cares more about people - all people.
Antonina’s empathy for animals is on full display when Jan brings home a young woman brutalized by Nazis. [While much of the violence toward animals and humans happens offscreen, the aftershocks of the horror are still amply evident in the emotional response of Chastain’s heroine and others.] Antonina relates to the young girl’s experience, and provides her the means to recover from her tragedy. The Warsaw Zoo becomes a place not merely of hiding but also recovery as well.
Director Niki Caro delivered an inspiring film two years ago in McFarland, U.S.A., about a track team from a school no one thought could win. Here, she delivers a give-and-take film with higher stakes, about belief in doing the right thing regardless of the cost or threat. Emotionally powerful and ripe with tension from the very possibility of discovery, the zoo serves as the backdrop for a couple standing against the forces of evil. While it’s a more sensational background to the story of bravery than others like it, it’s a reminder that when faced with a choice to stand against evil or not, we are all called to use the skills and resources that God has given us.