Every life is precious in The Zookeeper’s Wife whether it is animal or human. In the face of the harsh brutality of the occupation of Poland, the casual cruelty of everyday life and the Holocaust, this film reminds us that courage comes in all forms and resistance always has a price — sometimes very, very high.
Based on a best-selling book, it belongs to the class of war movies (Enemy at the Gates, (2001), Defiance (2008)) that stay with you long after you leave the theater. It is beautifully acted, well-filmed and powerful but have graphic scenes of execution and rape. You are now warned.
It’s 1939 and the Warsaw Zoo basks in the sunshine. Innocent families visit the elephants, walk past the tigers, the cheetahs, and the bald eagle. A baby camel follows Antonina Zabinski, (Jessica Chasten) the wife of zoologist and Director Jan Zabinski (Johan Huldenberg) through the happy place. Later that night a the dinner party, the Zabinskis host the head of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). He’s attracted to Antonina, a fellow animal lover – and as a woman.
Then Germany invades Poland, and reality bites. The zoo is bombed. People watch from their windows as the confused freed big cats walk by. Some are re-captured, some are killed by troops. Lutz comes to the Zoo’s rescue but at a price: he wants to take their prized animals to Berlin. Some of the animals aren’t prized enough to the Germans to be saved and are executed.
On the human side, the Germans herd the Polish Jews into the Ghetto where they are abused with beatings, rape, and starvation.
Early in the movie, the Zabinskis decide to protect and shelter Jews even though German troops come and go from the zoo every day. To keep the zoo going, it becomes a pig farm to feed the occupiers. Jan offers to take food scrapes from the Ghetto to feed the pigs. It gets him through the gates – and he brings some Jews out.
Then the Germans deport the Jews to the camps, and burn the Ghetto. Ashes float over Warsaw like snow. Most of the modern audience will make the connection to the death camps.
From there on it’s a matter of what will happen, who will live, who will die, and what will survive the occupation, and the conquering Russians. The fate of Heck and the Zabinskis are intertwined as is the fate of their Zoo, and that of hundreds of Jews.
The Zookeeper’s Wife isn’t an easy movie to enjoy — but it’s so worthwhile to see.