Zoologist Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina operated the Warsaw Zoo for years until war came to Poland in 1939, bombs destroyed many of the enclosures, and their prized animals transported to Berlin while the rest slaughtered.
But the couple found another purpose for their Zoo. Continuing to operate it under the guise of a pig farm to feed the Nazi troops, they used it to secretly hide and transport Jews from a nearby ghetto, saving hundreds from being sent to extermination camps.
The Żabiński’s story is recounted in the new movie The Zookeeper’s Wife, adapted by Angela Workman from Diane Ackerman’s bestselling 2008 novel and directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country). It’s a rare wartime drama not only told from a female perspective, but featuring a woman at each step of the creative process.
Jessica Chastain stars as the titular character, Antonina Żabiński, and while the film is primarily told from her point of view, husband Jan (Flemmish actor Johan Heldenbergh) is of equal importance to the story.
That story begins on the eve of war in 1938; at a party hosted by Żabiński’s in Warsaw, leading zoologists from around the region including Berlin’s Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) converge to witness Antonia save the life of a newborn elephant.
Soon, however, bombs ring out in the center of Warsaw, and many of the Zoo’s enclosures are destroyed and creatures killed. Others break free onto the streets of Warsaw only to be shot by soldiers; the prized survivors are transported to the Berlin Zoo, and the rest slaughtered under the orders of the Nazis now in control of the city.
Note for animal lovers: the first half-hour of the film features a number of upsetting on-screen deaths. It’s so rare to see this kind of carnage in a mainstream feature that the animal suffering may even upstage the film’s depiction of greater, but more familiar, horrors of the Holocaust.
Brühl’s Heck is put in charge of the now-defunct Zoo, but the Żabiński’s convince him to keep it operational as a pig farm. In some of the film’s most intense scenes, Jan collects both garbage to feed the pigs as well as Jewish escapees from the nearby ghetto.
Antonia, meanwhile, is left to keep the slimy Heck and his affections at bay.
The majority of The Zookeeper’s Wife is told in disarmingly straightforward fashion, recounting the details of how the Żabiński’s did what they did rather than delving into the personal stories behind it. It’s a matter-of-fact presentation that historians may appreciate, but keeps the emotional content of the story at arms’ length.
Late scenes between Antonia and Brühl’s Heck turn unfortunately melodramatic, however, and there’s a protracted and unnecessary did-he-or-didn’t-he sequence that doesn’t jive with understated presentation of the rest of the movie.
Because of the film’s focus, the true horrors of the Holocaust are really never depicted on-screen; instead, the filmmakers rely on viewers’ knowledge of the events to give them a complete picture of the story and the importance of the Żabiński’s actions.
Both Heldenbergh and Chastain, boasting a convincing Polish accent, are excellent here, and fill in a lack of character depth in the script with committed performances. Their young son Ryszard, also an integral part of the story, is played by two actors of little distractingly little resemblance (physical and otherwise) as the story progresses.
The central Warsaw Zoo was recreated in Prague’s Holešovice district, at the Výstaviště exhibition grounds and the nearby Stromovka park, while the Jewish ghetto and other central Warsaw locations were shot on the outskirts of the city.
The authentic-feeling Prague location work adds a great deal of authority to what otherwise feels like a relatively low-budget production. Many familiar faces from the Czech film scene can be spotted in supporting roles.
The Zookeeper’s Wife will premiere in Prague at this week’s Febiofest (March 23-31) and open wide in Czech cinemas on March 30.