The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Niki Caro
Run Time
2 hours and 4 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity

When I reviewed Schindler’s List in 1994, I used Psalm 22 as the framework for the discussion guide. For this new Holocaust film, I am using Psalm 10, as the framework for the entire review. The film offers people of faith a great opportunity  to study one of Scripture’s greatest protests against oppression and plea for relief.

 Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star ratig (1-5): 4.5

Psalm 10:1

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

This Holocaust film is directed by Niki Caro, with screenwriter Angela Workman, adapting the nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman. In Warsaw during the summer of 1939 Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain), directors of the Warsaw Zoo, are hosting a dinner or cocktail party. One of their prominent guests is the Berlin Zoo’s visiting head Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a handsome mustachioed man clearly attracted to the beautiful Antonina. Suddenly the chitchat, which does include worries about a war, is interrupted when the groundskeeper Jerzyk (Michael McElhatton) rushes in with urgent news.

The newborn baby elephant is in serious trouble. Earlier, we had seen Antonina’s intense attachment to all the animals when she sets forth on her morning bicycle ride and affectionately greets the various animals she passes by, and they respond in kind. An exuberant young camel is allowed to run alongside her. (Indeed, one of the first scenes we see in the film is her waking up her young son, and what at first we think sleeping next to him is a large-eared puppy, which turns out to be not one, but two lion cubs!)

Rushing to the elephant pen, she finds the baby lying on the ground and the two troubled elephants standing close by. First calming the mother, she bends down over the little one, as the trunk of the mother keeps caressing the bay and touching her. She presses on the little one to help it’s slackening breathing. Jerzyk helps by coaxing the father into another section of the pen. He clearly understands that it is Antonina, rather than he, whom the mother elephant trusts. Meanwhile, outside the guests have come out to watch, but are kept at a distance so as not to upset the mother any further. After several unsuccessful attempts, Antonina manages to get the little creature breathing properly, and it rises up to join its mother. The people applaud. It is clear that the zookeeper’s wife is second only to Francis of Assisi in love for and empathy with animals.

Psalm 10:2-6

2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

3 For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.

4 In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”

5 Their ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of their sight;
as for their foes, they scoff at them.
6 They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved;
throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.

The screen reads September 1, 1939, and we know immediately what is about to happen. There is the roar of planes massed overhead and the thud and explosion of bombs. Even the zoo is a target for the Nazis, some of the animal habitats suffering hits, with animals screaming, and some lying dead. There is the bizarre sight of escaped animals, including a tiger, roaming the streets, people staring at them out of their windows.

Soon Nazi troops arrive, and despite the protests of Jan and Antonina, shoot any animal running loose. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) returns to the zoo, this time decked out as a jack-booted Nazi.

Psalm 10:7-9

7 Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
8 They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places they murder the innocent.

Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9     they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

Heck supervises the shipping of the zoo’s prize specimens off to Germany for his eugenics experiments. The large horned cattle are so large that he conducts his breeding experiments at the zoo in the hope of bringing back the extinct auroch. All over Warsaw the invaders are rounding up Jews and confining them to the large ghetto. Jan and Antonina have already agreed to store the prized insect collection of their Jewish friend Maurycy Fraenkel (Iddo Goldberg) in their basement, so it is not long before they are hiding Jews there as well, with tunnels under the house making it possible to smuggle the people into cars and trucks taking them outside of Warsaw. In the ghetto a bakery employs not only bakers but several forgers producing fake identity papers and passports.

The Zabinskis have been able to stay on at the zoo grounds by coming up with a clever scheme. They propose to set up on the grounds a pig farm. It will provide scarce meat for the German troops and use the garbage from the ghetto for the animals’ food. Jan and their son Ryszard (played first by Timothy Radford, then Val Maloku because the film spans 7 years) travel back and forth in their truck, first their Jewish friends and then others hiding in the garbage bins beneath the garbage.

 Psalm 10:10-13

10 They stoop, they crouch,
and the helpless fall by their might.
11 They think in their heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

12 Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
do not forget the oppressed.
13 Why do the wicked renounce God,
and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account?

While Jan is driving the garbage truck through the ghetto he spies two burly German soldiers running their fingers through the hair of an adolescent Jewish girl, whom later he will learn is Urzula (Shira Haas). They drag her into an alleyway out of sight. A few minutes later she emerges, her clothes disheveled, cuts and bruises on her body indicating she had struggled against her abuser. Jan takes her back to the zoo with the other young Jews he has hidden in the bins. She is so traumatized that not even Antonina can coax a word from her while soothing her and cleaning her up. She leaves a similarly timid and helpless creature with the girl, the bunny she has been petting. The little rabbit will be her constant companion and help to heal her spirit.

Psalm 10:14-16

But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
you have been the helper of the orphan.

15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
seek out their wickedness until you find none.
16 The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations shall perish from his land.

As Jan and his son drive through the ghetto they see the daily toll of the Nazi’s starvation policy, bodies lying dead in the street and trucks passing by loaded with bodies stacked like cordwood. At one of the gate a German couple treat it like a tourist attraction y taking a selfie of themselves in front of the activities going on behind themselves.

Taking deadly risks every day would strain anyone’s nerves, and Lutz’s lust for Antonina adds to the burden. Jan had agreed originally that his wife would use the German’s desire for her to get him to go along with their pig farm project. But as he sees the man close to his wife numerous times, his jealously is aroused. One time in particular the German and Antonina are at the door when her keener ears detect a noise caused by the children of a Jewish cowering directly beneath them. Their faces close to each other, she pulls him toward her by grasping (and covering) his ears.

As the years pass, there are many successes, some 300 ghettos escapees being sneaked out of the city via the zoo. There are some failures, and late in the film, Jan joins his friends in the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,* with Jan’s fate unknown to Antonina for some time.

Psalm 10:17-18

17 O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
18 to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Sadly, this film has not been well received by critics, which is understandable when you use Schindler’s List as the benchmark for judgement. Director Niki Caro’s first film Whale Rider probably is a better film than this one, and yet I found myself deeply moved by numerous scenes, some described above. I was especially glad to see that another real-life ghetto hero appears in several scenes, Dr. Janusz Korczak (Arnost Goldflam). From Jan’s conversations with him in the ghetto we assume they were friends, which is likely in that they both moved in the upper circles of Warsaw society. The doctor was a world renown pediatrician, author of books for children and adults (indeed, Korzcak was his pen name, his real one being Doctor Henryk Goldszmit), and head of an orphanage where he implemented his advanced ideas about child treatment. He and his school of 200 children were removed to the ghetto where he protected and fed them as best he could. Jan apparently was one of several who offered the doctor a chance to escape, but he refused, even at the end when he insisted on boarding with the children on a train that he knew was bound for a death camp. (A review of the wonderful Polish film Korzcak is available on this site.)

For a profile in courage, do not miss this film. It is good that for a change that the rescuer is a woman. Husband Jan is indeed co-responsible for the saving of the 300 Jews credited to the husband and wife, but it is nice that Ms. Caro focuses upon the wife. Our daughters need all the positive role models they can find in a world in which patriarchy is still strong.

*See the review of the TV film Uprising, a good reminder that not all Jews went sheep-like to their deaths.

This review with a set of questions will be in the April 2017 issue of VP. If you find reviews on this site useful, please support us by buying an issue or subscribing for a year. Most of the reviews in the journal come with discussion questions–10 in the case of this film.


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