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
which opens tomorrow in New York.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
This is such a remarkable story it is downright
baffling nobody tried to tell it before. Caro and Workman consistently opt for mainstream
decorum, but they arguably deserve credit for underplaying the obvious “people
in a zoo” metaphor. Respectfully recommended for general audiences, The Zookeeper’s Wife opens tomorrow
(3/31) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.
Labels: Antonina Zabinski, Daniel Bruhl, Jan Zabinski, Jessica Chastain, Warsaw Ghetto