The time is 1939 Warsaw, Poland, the homeland of Antonina Zabinski and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski. The Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan's stewardship and Antonina's care. When the Germans invade Poland and their Zoo is turned into a military post, their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are forced to report to the Reich's newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, The Zookeeper's Wife recounts the true story of a husband and wife couple, who despite the dangers secretly shelter Jews from 1939 to 1945 on their premises of the Warsaw Zoo. Thus enabling the Resistance and putting into action plans to save the lives of hundreds of Polish Jews from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto.
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Hello, Movie Buffs!
Of course, there have been many stories told about ordinary men and women who have displayed extraordinary heroism during the Holocaust, and such tales are often told with flattering hero worship that goes against the nature of the characters. However, The Zookeeper's Wife stands out among one of the better ones by simply displaying extraordinary bravery and telling a story without embellishments or exaggeration. The film highlights the emotional devastation of war without having to use violence or gore but rather place an emphasis on authenticity; laying bare communities being torn apart by invaders, the utter hopelessness of those who were oppressed, and the sacrifices of those fighting to make a difference during such challenging times. Director Niki Caro (McFarland USA, Whale Rider, North Country) knows her way around such worthy tributes, by placing emphasis on the difficult circumstances of the war in order to demonstrate the Żabińskis' bravery rather than acclaiming the characters as being untouchable. Every scene is played out with an attention to detail and realism – the Warsaw Zoo looks astonishing, huge, and beautiful – so that condition the Żabińskis’ were living under, as well as the dangers they were putting themselves in, are felt deeply and overwhelmingly, thus revealing the measure of courage and self-sacrifice that their deeds exemplified.
The source for Diane Ackerman's novel of the same name, comes from the diary of Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) and Ackerman’s narration focuses equally on the Żabińskis’ and Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the two-faced head zoologist of the Berlin Zoo and later one of the prominent figures of the German war office in Poland. This allows for screenwriter Angela Workman to fashion a rather unnecessary subplot with Lutz developing one-sided feelings for Antonina and thus creating marital tension between Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina. As distracting as that may be, it is consoling that neither Lutz nor the Germans, in particular, are demonized; not all German soldiers were bad during this time, many were forced fight if only to keep those they loved safe.
The Zookeeper's Wife is fascinating to watch from beginning to end and is a magnificent testament to a strong cast. The strength of the performances determines whether the film, as with many historical dramatizations, ends up being compelling. Jessica Chastain’s had big shoes to fill in her irrefutably captivating portrayal as Antonina Żabiński, a beautiful woman who loves animals more than she loves herself and she does her best to ensure that everything goes as planned. She channels both true grit (sticking to one's goals) and vulnerability in equal measure as she stripped-downs her character's fears, passions, and convictions. Her performance in turns complements that of the Belgian actor who plays Jan. Though Johan Heldenbergh may not have the leading-man looks, he does possess the seriousness to play an unwavering volunteer for the underground Polish resistance. Daniel Brühl exercises admirable restraint in portraying a very scary and unpredictable villainous character. Shira Haas’ portrayal of the most visible victim of Nazi sadism is heartbreakingly beautiful.
However, while sad to see, the horrors of the Holocaust are depicted through fictional character Urszula (Israeli actress Shira Haas), who is a barely a teenager when Jan encounters her on his maiden trip to smuggle Jews to the Zoo. Although not originally part of the story, I believe that Urszula's addition is effective conveying the magnitude of the Żabińskis' rescue efforts. First, she portrays the suffering and subsequent trauma that the Jews endured during WW2, as the face of those persecuted she subtly asks the question “what happened to the human in humanity?” In contrast, with the help of the Żabińskis' her character goes from being a symbol of suffering to a symbol of hope, and that the Żabińskis' act of courage instilled hope into the lives of more than 300 Jews that they saved in the span of six years.
Overall, the Zookeeper’s Wife is truly incredible as it shows how kind-hearted people can be even in the most traumatizing of circumstances, and the message is to help others despite your differences. Antonina and Jan Zabinski save the lives of more than 300 hundred strangers, not once putting themselves first but rather focusing on making a difference even though the imminent danger is life-threatening. This film is inspiring and there are animals in it, for which I have a great soft spot. The Zookeeper’s Wife is not afraid to depict historical reality, so I do not recommend this film to children under 18 to adult. However, this is a film that viewers do not want to miss.
"You look in their eyes," and you know exactly what is in their hearts."
- Antonina (about the animals)
- Antonina (about the animals)
Worth Seeing: 5 of 5 stars
Worth Buying: 5 of 5 stars
I hope you liked this post, subscribe to my blog via email HERE, send in your comments, and watch The Zookeepers Wife (2017).
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Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Schindler’s List (1993)
The Pianist (2002)
Cast & Crew
Directed by: Niki Caro
(Screenplay) Angela Workman
(Book by) Diane Ackerman
Jeff Abberley --- producer (produced by)
Julia Blackman --- executive producer: Scion Films
Marc Butan --- executive producer
Jessica Chastain --- executive producer
Diane Miller Levin --- producer (produced by)
Mickey Liddell --- executive producer
Katie McNeill --- co-producer
Jennifer Monroe --- executive producer
Jamie Patricof --- producer (produced by)
Joanne Sennitt --- executive producer: Scion Films
Pete Shilaimon --- executive producer
Michael Tollin --- executive producer (as Mike Tollin)
Robbie Tollin --- executive producer (as Robbie Rowe Tollin)
Kevan Van Thompson --- executive producer
Kim Zubick --- producer (produced by)
Jessica Chastain --- Antonina Zabinski
Johan Heldenbergh --- Jan Zabinski
Daniel Brühl --- Lutz Heck
Timothy Radford --- Ryszard Zabinski (Younger)
Efrat Dor --- Magda Gross
Iddo Goldberg --- Maurycy Fraenkel
Shira Haas --- Urszula
Michael McElhatton --- Jerzyk
Val Maloku --- Ryszard Zabinski (Older)
Martha Issová --- Regina Kenigswein
Daniel Ratimorský --- Samuel Kenigswein
Frederick Preston --- Miecio Kenigswein
Theo Preston --- Stanislav Kenigswein
Viktoria Zakharyanova --- Stefania Keningswein
Goran Kostic --- Mr. Kinszerbaum
Arnost Goldflam --- Dr. Janusz Korczak
Marian Mitas --- Stefan
Martin Hofmann --- Szymon Tenenbaum
Jitka Smutná --- Pietrasia
Waldemar Kobus --- Dr. Ziegler
Viktorie Jenickova --- Teresa Zabinska (2 years old)
Adira B. Cole Abbett --- Teresa Zabinska (9 months old)
Radick Cembrzynski --- Polish Soldier
Hana Pindurova --- Teresa Zabinska (Baby)
Slavko Sobin --- Mr. Keller
Alena Mihulová --- Marysia Aszer
Natasa Burger --- Roza Anzelowna
Hana Frejková --- Roza's Mother
Magdalena Lamparska --- Wanda Englert
Vilma Frantová --- Zofia Kossak
Magdalena Sidonová --- Janina Rabbe
Ester Kocicková --- Eugenia Wasowska
Petra Buckova --- Wanda Filipowicz
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