‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ tells tender story about Holocaust heroics

What It’s About:

It’s impossible not to get emotional while watching “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” a heart-rending Holocaust film based on the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski. They saved 300 lives through their selfless heroics at the Warsaw Zoo.

An adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s 2007 bestselling book, which used Antonina’s diary as a reference, the movie tells the story in not-so-subtle broad, obvious ways.

Hitler’s horrific atrocities can’t be softened, but director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) focuses on overcoming the Third Reich’s inhumanity.

The zoo animals are adorable while the Nazis exhibit cruelty at every opportunity. You may recoil in horror when the Gestapo guns down some of the creatures. (Be reassured, these kills are CGI, and no animals were harmed in the making of the movie.)

To fight back, the courageous Zabinskis concoct an elaborate scheme that brings Jews to their complex in basically garbage — scraps for pig feed now that the zoo has been turned into a farm.

A sentimental approach is used to show how the noble Zabinskis lovingly tended to the animals in the Warsaw Zoo they oversaw, and then managed human charges at great personal risk.

After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Jews were rounded up and placed in the Warsaw Ghetto, until extermination. The Zabinskis saw a way to hide Jews at their place, and did so until the end of World War II in 1945.


As Antonina, three-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain is her customary excellent self, effortlessly slipping into the devoted Polish woman’s persona.

Kind to animals and people, the woman radiates goodness. However, because of the situation, she must allow the attentions of a Nazi officer, and this causes friction between she and her husband.

As her husband Jan, Johan Heidenbergh (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”) is a decent, stoic person who sees the inhumanity first-hand in the ghetto, resolving to save as many from captivity and eradication.

As the villain, Daniel Bruhl (“Rush”) tries to offer some nuance to the hardline German zoologist turned Nazi officer, Lutz Heck. But as written, he’s strictly the evil dude you root against. He uses the zoo’s prize animals for selective breeding. Unfortunately, Bruhl is saddled with the film’s worst scene too.

​What Works:

In times of great duress, a true story of incredible bravery has emerged yet again. These tales provide hope and remind us of man’s inhumanity to man.

What Doesn’t Work:

References to “Schindler’s List” are evident, and therefore, the movie feels derivative of other, better movies about this harrowing time.​

“The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Stars: and a half stars

Director: Niki Caro

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heidenbergh, Michael McElhatton

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

Length: 2:06