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The Zookeeper’s Wife – a story of compassion in Hitler era




Films about the Holocaust and the treatment of Jews during the Nazi era elicit powerful emotions, especially from Jewish cinema-goers, and to maintain a balanced perspective remains a challenge to any director.

Niki Caro’s engrossing production, “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, manages to do just that and, in its own way, reveals some semblance of humanity among the madness of the time.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is an emotive, true story about a Polish couple whose enormous compassion and incredible will managed to save hundreds of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Jan and Antonina Żabiński (Jan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain) run the Warsaw Zoo and seem content with their lot in life. She rides around the zoo on her bicycle accompanied by a baby camel named Adam. She greets the visitors and oversees the care and feeding of her animal wards. Her husband is the zoo’s curator.

Then on September 1, 1939, the day of the invasion of Poland, many of the animals die in the bombing. A Nazi officer, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), who is also a zoologist, arrives to take the best of the zoo’s breeds and bring them to Berlin. The rest of the animals are slaughtered by the German soldiers. The zoo, in turn, is converted into a pig farm to feed the Nazi occupiers.

The Żabińskis are living in constant fear because if found to be harbouring Jews in the zoo’s underground cages, it would mean instant death.

What exacerbates the situation is that, apart from armed guards patrolling the vicinity, the nosy Lutz Heck, who has his eye on the attractive Antonina, is constantly sniffing around.

Based on Diane Ackerman’s New York Times best seller, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” continually tugs at the heartstrings, especially in sequences dealing with the tragic plight of those confined to the Warsaw Ghetto.

A plan is hatched by the couple to smuggle Jews out of the ghetto and these moments are fraught with danger and suspense. The two risk everything to save the Jews.

In the face of utter hopelessness, Antonina manages to find the strength to keep spirits high through music (she plays the piano), conversation and even laughter at times when they dare let their guard down. Antonina and the sheltered Jews manage to restore each other’s faith in humanity and together plot a harrowing escape to freedom.

There are numerous touching scenes, especially those showing sad lines of humanity being loaded into cattle trucks destined for the death camps. The faces of innocent children being lifted into the trucks by the Nazi guards, strike a highly emotional chord. 

This little-known story is delivered without frills and with a straightforward screen treatment. The period, with its style of clothing, is faithfully depicted and the acting, especially from Jessica Chastain, is commanding. Chastain, given a Polish accent, has a pivotal role, showing a strong, compassionate woman to whom life, whether it be man or beast, is sacred.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” may appeal to history buffs, but it has more universal appeal because it conveys messages of love and compassion for all. 

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