“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a gorgeous Focus Features film based on the story of Antonina and Jan Żabińska, the owners of the Warsaw Zoo who rescued hundreds of people during the Holocaust. The screenplay by Angela Workman was adapted from Diane Ackerman’s book of the same title, which stems from Antonina’s diaries and extensive research. The film centers around Antonina (Jessica Chastain), a sweet-natured, shy woman who adores animals, opening with a magical scene in which she does her morning rounds on a bicycle in the zoo, with Adam the camel galloping along behind her. Chastain is positively glowing as Antonina, and her life with Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and their son seems idyllic; the zoo is prosperous and they are a loving family, but there is disturbing news at a dinner party of Hitler’s interest in Poland.
When the Germans invade, the zoo is heartbreakingly destroyed by bombs, with many of the animals scattered or killed. The family is then oppressed by German soldiers who set up camp in their zoo, which falls under the control of Hitler’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a charmer whose own passion for animals is much more scientific. His interest in breeding programs helps to keep the zoo from being dismantled, however.
When the Polish Jews begin to be forced into the ghetto, the Żabińskas decide to hide their good friend Magda (Efrat Dor) in their underground animal pens. Then as the situation escalates, Jan is contacted by an underground movement to turn the zoo into a way station for people being shuttled out of Poland. It’s a serious decision for the family, considering they are literally surrounded by Nazis. The plan requires Jan to smuggle people out of the ghetto in his truck, under the guise of collecting garbage for the zoo, while Antonina is forced to help Heck with his breeding program and put up with his advances.
The story that follows is naturally very intense, alternating between uplifting and harrowing – there is an horrific incident with a teenage girl in the ghetto – but the compassion and resilience of Antonina and her family are incredible, and the performances and cinematography kept me mesmerized. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is in theaters March 31st and I highly recommend it!