Friday, April 20 , 2018, 3:29 pm | Fair 63º


Cinema in Focus: ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

3 Stars — Powerful

Courage is often forged on the crucible of compassion. This was seen in a multitude of individuals and families during World War II, when the Nazi war machine was killing innocent men, women and children of Jewish decent.

Seeing this atrocious genocide up close compelled many to risk their own lives to save as many as possible. The Zookeeper’s Wife is one such account.

Based on the book by Diane Ackerman and adapted by Angela Workman, this true story was brought to the screen by director Niki Caro. The title role of Antonina Żabiński​ is played by Jessica Chastain, and her husband, Jan Żabiński​, is played by Johan Heldenbergh.

The story begins in Warsaw just as the war is beginning. The Żabiński​s are the owners of the Warsaw Zoo, where Jan is assisted by his wife in the loving care of the animals. Recognizing the danger of the approaching war with Poland between Germany and Russia, Jan pleads with Antonina to take their young son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford, Val Maloku) to safety.

With more naiveté than courage at this point, Antonina does not think they should run. Her husband gives in and, within a short time, it is too late as bombs decimate their city and zoo.

The Germans soon surround them with a war machine that wants to kill their animals for food and make their property an ammunition storage site. But when their best friends describe the way the Germans are rounding up their Jewish family and friends and imprisoning them behind walls, the Zabinski family makes a decision to help. At first is it only their good friends, Regina and Samuel Kenigswein, and their children, but they soon expand their efforts saving more than 300 people from death.

To make this possible, they deceive the Füher’s top zoologist and SS officer, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). Attracted to Antonina, Heck solicits her help in trying a special genetic experiment. Realizing that they need his protection, she invites the relationship and walks a difficult line in keeping him interested and unsuspecting while remaining a faithful wife.

Their plan is ingenious. Knowing the army needs food, they suggest that they put pigs in the pens and take the garbage from the Jewish ghetto to feed them. Approving their plan in part so he can have an excuse to work with Antonina, Heck does not realize that they are rescuing Jewish children and families hidden within the garbage truck each day. After taking them to the zoo, they are then transported during the night to safety.

The power of the film is not only in the Żabiński family’s courage as well as the courage of the Jewish people, but also in the interactions of the Żabińskis themselves as they walk through the years of the war.

It raises the question for all of us whether we have the courage to do the same in our day. From the human trafficking to the war refugees, are we willing to sacrifice and even risk out own freedom that they might survive?

Compassion compels us to consider what kind of people we are and become in the face of such choices. This film helps us explore the answer.


» The evil of genocide is indisputable and yet continues today. What do you believe to be the root cause of such hatred?

» Spoiler. The moral character of Heck is shown at the end of the film in two different ways — his stopping himself from raping Antonina and his stopping himself from killing her son. Why do you think he showed such restraint? Where was it earlier when he was a part of the atrocity of the ghetto?

» Warsaw had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, but 35,000 people died in the Warsaw ghetto and a total of 300,000 were killed in the camps. This was 3-out-of-4 Jewish residents of the city. Do you join in the Days of Remembrance of those who were killed in the Holocaust? Why or why not?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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