I admit I cried during the press screening of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” more than once, but that has more to do with my love of animals than my love for this movie. This is one of those times one wishes the casting had gone for reality instead of glamor in this story about how Antonina Żabińska and her husband Dr. Jan Żabiński went from zookeepers for the Warsaw zoo to rescuers of Polish Jewish during World War II.
When you look at photos of the real Antonina Żabińska, she is a solid woman with a hearty smile. She the kind of woman one might think was no-nonsense and could take care of herself compared to the rather winsome Jessica Chastain who plays her.
Antonina Żabińska helps her husband Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) manage one of the largest and most prolific zoos in September 1939. When the movie opens, Jan has only just been appointed. They entertain both the crowd who comes to visit the Warsaw Zoo during the day and visiting dignitaries during the evening hours.
To demonstrate Antonina’s special gift with animals and fearless plunging into muck and even her down-to-earth nature, we see her assisting in the reviving of an elephant baby that having been born, is suffocating in the amniotic sac. Leaving the guests in her villa, Antonina runs to the Asian elephant exhibit. The hovering mother elephant allows her to assist after Antonina has kicked off her shoes. When the baby is breathes and moves, Antonina hugs her husband, careful not to let her bloody hands muss his fine shirt.
Antonina and Jan are an affectionate couple–both loving their animals as overgrown pets with a young son who has a similar fondness for wildlife. A bloody hand is nothing unusual, but the kind of blood they will see soon after won’t bring joy. One of their guests if the head of the Berlin Zoo, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl).
On 1 September 1939, Antonina and her son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and then Val Maloku) are at the zoo when German forces invade Poland, bombing Warsaw. Animals that we have already become familiar with die and others, including dangerous carnivores escape and must be killed. This is where I cried and thought of other zoos in other countries such as Iraq.
Soon Heck reappears and “kindly” offers to take some of the zoos surviving prize specimens to Berlin. How else will the animals survive? Antonina agrees, but by winter, with white snow blanketing the zoo grounds, Heck returns and orders the animals killed to prevent them from suffering through the winter. Seeing an eagle, he shoots it himself and reminds his aide to retrieve it so Heck can have it stuffed and mounted.
Without any animals, what is a zoo? As you can imagine, seeing the surviving animals shot was horrific and here I cried again, particularly at the death of the young camel.
At about this time, the Nazis are hunting, capturing and detaining Jews, sending them all to a ghetto. One Jew asks the Żabińskis to protect his bug collection. In times, the Żabińskis are sheltering more than mounted and boxed bugs. Beginning by sheltering Antonina’s friend Magda (Efrat Dor), they eventually hatch a plan to smuggle Jews out of the ghetto and shelter them in the hidden underground cages for the animals until they can escape. The ruse is a pig farm. Pigs feed the Germans. The German army needs food. The Jews have food refuse that can be fed to the pigs. During a pickup, Jan hides Jews under garbage and smuggles them out.
Heck hasn’t forgotten about the Żabińskis and has a particular attraction to the fetching Antonina. He also has a plan to use the zoo grounds for his own experiment, one that will give him an excuse to visit Antonina and also provide him with glory in the zoological fields. He wants to resurrect an extinct giant ox: the aurochs. Jan feels its a foolish endeavor, but he’s only a pig farmer now. This is not fiction; it is fact and there were offspring–more than the one we see in this film.
One of the greater problems is that this film moves from moment to moment without particularly good emotional transitions. The script makes the Nazis too evil, particularly in the characterization of Heck. We never see his brother Heinz, who was also a zoologist and the director of Munich zoo.
Instead of a family against the Nazis, the film makes it Antonina’s story and one wishes for more insight to Ryszard and less time with the dastardly Heck moving in on Antonina. This is Holocaust survival by the numbers. Perhaps with someone more common looking, a woman with less model and glamor potential, this movie could have explored the courage and cunning of a real person instead of falling back on old tropes.