Movie Review Of "The Zookeeper's Wife"

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a complex World War II film with much tragedy, unselfish bravery, and care for war victims as well as ongoing love for zoo animals, and a persistent belief in the future. This 126 minute film occurs at one of the largest and best European zoos, Warsaw Zoo, in 1930s Poland. The movie is based on the non-fiction book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman.  The story originates from diaries of wife, Antonina Zabinski, whose 1968 book, was entitled, “People and Animals.”

            The movie, directed by Niki Caro, a New Zealand director, producer, and screenwriter, ("Whale Rider," 2002, and "McFarland USA" with Kevin Costner), unfolds with the Nazi German Blitzkrieg invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. On September 17, 1939, Red Army Russian troops invaded Poland from the East, and Poland ceased to exist as a nation state. Some of the bombs during the invasion fell in the Warsaw Zoo which terrorizes the Zookeeper and Superintendent of Warsaw parks, Dr. Jan Zabinski, (Johan Heldenbergh, "The Confessions," 2016), his wife, Antonina Zabinski, (Jessica Chastain, soap opera "Dark Shadows," "Tree of Life" with Brad Pitt), their son, Ryszard Zabinski, (actors Tim Radford, Val Maloku), zoo staff, and visitors, injuring and killing some of the animals. Soon, the villain, a Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, "Bourne Ultimatum"), head of the Berlin Zoo and an SS officer (SS stands for Schutzstaffel), arrives, saying that the Germans are taking over the Warsaw Zoo. The SS was the Nazi German special forces group controlling concentration camps, where some 5. 5 – 6 million Jews and others were murdered. Some animals are taken to Germany, some have gotten loose, and some are portrayed as being killed. Among animals portrayed as being killed are an eagle shot by Heck, and a young camel which follows Antonina doing her zoo rounds.

By November, 1940, Nazi German authorities have forced 400,000 Warsaw Jews into a 1.3 square mile Ghetto in the city. It is suggested to Lutz Heck the idea of setting up of a hog farm at the Zoo to supply meat, and to collect garbage from the ghetto to feed them. Jan and Antonina manage, by using the garbage truck, and other means, to hide escaping Jews from the Ghetto at the Zoo. Throughout much of the war, they save some 300 or so. Only 2 women smuggled to a safe house are recognized and killed. Lutz is infatuated with Antonina, but she remains faithful to Jan.

            On Passover eve, April 19, 1943, continued fighting by Jewish guerillas in the Ghetto aggravates the Germans to send thousands of troops to quash the rebellion, and to burn and destroy the Ghetto. Miraculously, the Zabinskis have been able to conceal many Jews. Different scenes show close calls such as Heck hearing a noise while he is talking to Antonina. In a confrontation, Heck tried to get the son, Ryszard, to reveal things. As Heck leaves the zoo, he hears the son shout through a window – “Hitler is Kaput!”  In one sad scene, Heck grabs up the son and threatens to shoot him with Antonina nearby, and a shot is heard. In another morbid scene, someone questions the snow falling, but Antonina notes the flakes are ashes from the burning Ghetto. Later, Jan joins with the partisans in fighting the Germans, is wounded, and imprisoned. Some estimates indicate a population of 400,000 persons imprisoned within the Ghetto confines. Some 300,000 are killed by bullets and/or the gas chambers, and 92,000 by disease and hunger. Eventually, the Zoo gets closed. Antonina, with her son and new daughter, join the mass of refugees fleeing the war. 

            The ending of the movie is somewhat unlike many typical Hollywood movie endings. Recommended for older youth and on up.



Bob Rittenhouse

I am mostly retired Have had careers as a librarian, high school and college teacher, scientist in the life siences and information science, occasionally work as a Cuyahoga Board of Elections poll worker, have a little consulting business, Rittenhouse Info Trak

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Volume 13, Issue 12, Posted 2:48 PM, 06.20.2017