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Movie Night – ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ offers unique perspective

By Bradley Griffith

Movies (and books) about World War II are almost always intriguing and interesting. The war was the ultimate battle to destroy true evil. Because World War II was such a pivotal point in the history of the planet there have been many movies made about this particular war. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is based on a true story and has a slightly different perspective than most World War II films.

The movie opens in the summer of 1939 in Warsaw, Poland. The Nazis are making advances from the west and the Russians are coming from the east. Poland is in the middle of the collision between these two massive armies who both want to claim Poland for their own, regardless of the wishes of the Polish people.

In the midst of a war-torn continent and surrounded by violence on all sides, in Warsaw there is a small family and group of workers who operate the Warsaw Zoo. Dr. Jan Sabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina Sabinski (Jessica Chastain) are the keepers of the zoo.  Antonina has a special ability to connect with and calm the animals, especially the female elephant at the Zoo. During the 1930s the Warsaw Zoo was one of the biggest and best in all of Europe.

On September 1, 1939 Nazi airplanes begin bombarding Warsaw, including the Zoo.  Most of the enclosures are destroyed, several animals are killed, and many others roam freely through the Zoo and the streets of Warsaw.  Soon the Nazis storm Warsaw and claim it for their own. They force all Jews that they don’t murder from their homes and place them all in the ghetto with very little food or fuel to keep warm in the winter.

Despite the fact that Hitler’s head zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), makes almost daily visits to the Zoo and despite the fact that German troops occupy the Zoo from early in the morning until midnight every day, Jan and Antonina begin to rescue Jews from the ghetto.  They hide them at the Zoo until they can be taken to safety.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” tells a powerful story.  Words alone cannot describe the horrors that the Jewish people of Europe faced.  But the movie shows that there were good people willing to fight back in any way they could.  Amid so much misery, there was hope. While the atrocities were being committed on a daily basis, the focus of the movie is not the evil that med do, but the good that just a few good people can do, saving over 300 people from certain death.

Much of the movie focuses on Jessica Chastain as Antonina Sabinski.  Chastain is a great actor and she is once again fantastic. As Antonina, she lived in fear nearly every second of every day, yet she was strong and defiant.  Also exceptional in his role was Daniel Bruhl as the deceptively evil Lutz Heck.  He masked his true intentions with kindness until his true nature revealed itself.  He was the ultimate villain for this movie.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” puts a bit of different spin on the usual World War II film by using the Warsaw Zoo and the animals as a backdrop for the terrors of the war and the resistance.  The addition of the Zoo to the tale about the war made it original enough to distinguish it from many other similar movies. The most amazing thing is that the movie is based on a true story and that the Warsaw Zoo is still open today.

In reality, as in the movie, Antonina and Jan risked not only their own lives, but the life of their child to rescue Jews from the horrors being inflicted upon them by the Nazis. One small mistake could have cost them all their lives. They did it because it was the right thing to do, even the face of such great evil. For this alone, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” deserves acclaim.

Grade: A-

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity, and smoking.