The National Socialists were compulsive looters. In addition to systematically ransacking Europe’s great art collections, they also helped themselves to the rare breeds that survived in occupied zoos. Perhaps the most notorious case was the plundering of the Warsaw Zoo, led by the formerly respected zoologist Lutz Heck. However, Dr. Jan and Antonina Zabinski responded with secret defiance, sheltering hundreds of Jewish fugitives within zoo grounds. Diane Ackerman’s bestselling nonfiction account of the Zabinskis’ heroic resistance gets the big screen treatment in Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.
Dr. Jan Zabinski was the official director of the Warsaw Zoo (as well as Superintendent of Warsaw’s city parks), but the staff universally recognized his wife Antonina as an unofficial co-director. Even a visiting Germany zoologist with the Bond villain name of Lutz Heck acknowledged her expertise at handling animals. Indeed, she made quite an impression. Following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, Heck returns to help himself to the zoo’s prized animals. He pretends he will merely hold them for safe-keeping and they pretend to believe him. After all, at the point in the war, Germany really did look like a safer harbor for them to live, no matter how temporarily.
Heck returns yet again to pursue his bizarre project to genetically cross-breed the Auroch, a dead species of wild cattle back into existence, utilizing the zoo’s facilities. One would think an extinct bovine would not be the sort of symbolism the National Socialists would want to associate with the Third Reich, but somehow, they did indeed believe the late, lamented Auroch represented Aryan purity, or something. Regardless, Heck becomes a constant presence at the zoo, which offers a measure of protection from the occupying authorities but also represents a constant threat of danger.
By this time, the Zabinskis were sheltering dozens of Polish Jews. Some stayed only a few days, while others spent most of the war years in the cellar of the zoo villa. Under Heck’s pompous nose, Dr. Zabinski developed a system with the chairman of the Jewish council to regularly smuggle Jews out of the ghetto. Inevitably, he would also join the Home Army and fight during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but his capture will leave his wife and their young son Ryszard in a precarious position.
This really is an incredible story of courage and sacrifice, plus it has furry mammals. However, parents should keep in mind this is a PG-13 movie. It has a tremendous message, but the film does not water down just how perilous the wartime conditions were for the animals. There are no actual scenes of concentration camps, but observant viewers will recognize Dr. Janusz Korczak (memorably depicted in Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak) and his children during the Treblinka deportations (and everyone should understand the fate that awaited them).
Caro and cinematographer Andrij Parekh create some strikingly surreal imagery through the juxtaposition of the Eden-like zoo and its exotic creatures with the horrific realities of war. However, Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman give Dr. Zabinski’s extensive involvement with the Home Army rather short shrift.
Regardless, the film gets the broad strokes right, vividly capturing a sense of the constant fear the Zabinskis lived with. Jessica Chastain directly conveys the titular character’s comfort with animals and her hesitancy around people, but she is clearly trying to do something misguidedly Streepian with her slip-sliding accent. Still, she and the (Flemish) rock solid Johan Heldenbergh develop some subtle but powerful chemistry as the Zabinskis. Between this film and Vincent Pérez’s Alone in Berlin, Daniel Brühl is in very real danger of being typecast as an impotent Nazi hack, but he gives the film a bit of an edge as the creepy Heck.