The Zookeeper’s Wife
by Tony Medley
Runtime 126 minutes.
OK for children.
time is 1939; the place Warsaw (the film was shot in the abandoned
fortress town of Josefov, a couple of hours outside of Prague, in the
Czech Republic). Anybody educated in the 20th Century will
realize that the disastrous invasion of Poland by the Nazis is about to
occur (Sept. 1, 1939), so tension fills the air.
Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain in what is by far her best
performance) is a working wife and mother who, along with her husband,
Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh), run the Warsaw zoo.
the Nazis overrun the country, one of their friends, Lutz Heck (Daniel
Brühl) is appointed the Reich’s chief zoologist. Heck has a crush on
Antonina who plays him because she and Jan have determined to use the
underground cages and tunnels, created for their animals, as a place to
directed by Niki Caro from a good script (Angela Workman), adapted from
Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book which was based on Antonina’s diaries,
the tension is thick throughout and the pace never lets up. The
recreation of the Warsaw Ghetto (last seen in Roman Polanski’s 2002
The Pianist) and the scenes therein are aching to watch.
is one fictional character in the movie, Urszula, a Jewish orphan who is
raped by two Wermacht soldiers in the ghetto, played by Shira Haas. Her
performance is one that stays with you long after the movie ends.
aiding the efficacy of the film is the score (Harry Gregson-Williams)
that enhances the tension almost to the breaking point.
makes this all the more amazing is that the zoo was filled with German
soldiers throughout the occupation. What the Żabińskis did and
accomplished was heroism of the highest order, and it’s astounding to
only complaint I have about the movie is that the Zookeeper, Dr. Jan,
was just as heroic as his wife. Why isn’t the film (and the book)
entitled simply “The Zookeepers?” Why single out Antonina and minimize
her husband? He was the person who went inside the Ghetto each day to
sneak Jews out, which was the most dangerous part of what they did.
Chastain answered this question when she appeared on “The Today Show.”
She said it was a women’s project through and through. The book was
written by a woman; the script was written by a woman; the director was
a woman; the producer was a woman; and the star (obviously) was a woman.
Chastain took pains to say how proud she was that this was such a
did not read the book upon which this film is based, but
the only conclusion is that this is a calculatedly sexist movie that
purposefully minimized the heroism of her husband. They were both
equally courageous and it is to the movie’s discredit that it does not
reflect this. Instead, Dr. Jan is pictured as somewhat chauvinistic
because he is hurt by Antonina’s relationship with the Nazi Heck, a
relationship that the movie pictures him as perceiving as romantic. That
seemed unrealistic to me. They were both in dangerous positions and he
would understand that she could not alienate the Nazi. A loving husband
would sympathize with her dilemma. Would someone like Dr. Jan, who
risked his life and the life of his family to help the Polish Jews be so
insensitive and selfish?
came out of the film wondering how much was true and how much was biased
by all the women involved to make Antonina appear much more heroic than
these doubts, this is a fine movie and a good entertainment.