The Zookeeper's Wife


            Yes, it's like a Polish “Schindler's List.”  This is the true story of Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), who happened to own a Zoo in the middle of Warsaw in the summer of 1939----yes, right before the German invastion of Poland on September 1st which launched the whole world into a devastating six-year War.  Nothing was the same after that, certainly not for any part of Europe, and especially for the Zabinskis, whose lives were turned upside down by the War---but then, so was everybody else's.

            The first bucolic scenes, full of tranquility and playfulness, highlight the Zabinkis' special relationships with their animals.  But Jan, for one, feels the dark clouds coming over the horizon.  He tries to get his wife to run away with their young son, because he is afraid of what the Germans might do, but she refuses to even think about it---until, of course, the bombs start falling, and then it's too late.  They're occupied before they know it, and under German rule it quickly becomes clear that the Jews are singled out for persecution, then relocation.  “The Warsaw Ghetto” was a very sad place where thousands of people were crammed into very small accomodations with hardly subsistence rations.  Jan  felt it was his duty to help any way he could.  And since the local Nazi official, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), had decided to requisition his prize animals and send them to Berlin, anyway, Jan suggests that they keep pigs in the zoo cages, as food for the German soldiers, using the garbage from the Ghetto as the pigs' food.  Herr Heck thought that was a splendid ironic idea, but he didn't realize that Jan was smuggling out residents of the Ghetto and bringing them to the basement of his house to stay, until they could find a way out of the country.

            Now we live within the tense Zabinski household, as the frightened refugees cower in the basement by day, and are able to emerge only at midnight, when Antonina starts playing the piano, and only then do they have some times where they can visit and eat and almost feel human again.  During the day, they're back in hiding, and if Antonina plays the piano in the daylight, they know not to utter a single sound, which is harder, of course, for the children.

            It'll break your heart to watch the children from the Ghetto being loaded on to the trains, because we know where those trains are going, and what happens to the Jews when they get there.  (Director Niki Caro chooses not to show us any concentration camps, but the implication is clear enough.)  As a side plot, Herr Heck begins to show a personal interest in Antonina, which fills her with ambivalence, because she's loyal to her husband, but she needs to keep him distracted, for the sake of all who depend on her for the cool maintenance of fiery deceit.

            Director Caro chooses not to use subtitles, just having everyone speaking English, but sometimes with accents that work well, and sometimes not so well.  “The Zookeeper's Wife” is not exactly a stroll in a flower garden on a Spring day.  But it's a well-crafted reminder that out of the most horrible of circumstances, the human spirit can rise to inspiring heights.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  My father (and his brother) fought the Germans, and my mother's two brothers fought the Japanese. Do you have a personal or family connection to World War II?

2)                  What forms of civil disobedience are actually morally right and ethically heroic?

3)                  What are some current examples of racial discrimination?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association