Holocaust drama tells an uncommon tale

Holocaust drama tells an uncommon tale

Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

(M) Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl

Even though it is almost a century since it began, World War II continues to provide a multitude of stories of heroism and sacrifice.

From The Diary of Anne Frank to Schindler’s List, filmmakers continue to share the stories of the Holocaust as means of portraying the worst and the best of the human condition. The various depictions show that many times in war, ordinary people are thrust into harrowing situations that place them in the role of protector or saviour. Such is the case with Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) in The Zookeeper’s Wife.

The true story behind the film provides a different vantage point of the war to end all wars. This is the true story of the Żabińska’s, who managed the Warsaw Zoo in the heart of the Polish capital.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the vast majority of their cherished animals are sent to Berlin or destroyed. As they suffered through the trauma of this loss of these creatures that were considered to be like family, the Żabińska family had to determine what to do to survive. The challenges of their safety and livelihood were compounded by another issue that was happening within the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw, as many of their friends and neighbours were being rounded up by the Nazis and were systematically being taken away from the capital city to internment camps.

Realising that the zoo was a perfect place to house these persecuted Jews, the Żabińskas worked to protect many Jews from the dire plans of the German Commander Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) and his Nazi battalion. Over the six year occupation by the Germans, the zookeeper and his wife had to determine how far they would be willing to go to save their fellow Poles.

Considering the history of this point in time, this is the first film to capitalise on this theme and the lives of zoo owners during this period. The Żabińskas provided refuge for hundreds of Jews, but as zoologists their first love was for their beloved animals. This uncommon platform sets the stage for Chastain and the cast to carry this heroic journey through to audiences.

Even though the title of the book (by Diane Ackerman) and film does focus on Chastain’s character Antonina, hers is not the only performance of note. While she is captivating in the lead role it is her supporting cast that produce the depth of the story.

Johan Heldenbergh (as husband Jan) gives one of the strongest performances of the film with his portrayal of the quiet, but strong zookeeper. He embodies the emotion, tension and risks that the family continually go through to save souls from a premature death, but human and animal.

The Zookeeper’s Wife does give an uncommon and strong portrayal of the travails of the WWII era and the performances are worth getting along to see. The essence of the tale serves as reminder of our need to avoid these atrocities again.

What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?

  1. What does the Bible say about suffering? (Isaiah 43:2, Romans 3:3-5, 1 Peter 5:10)
  2. How far should we go to protect the oppressed? (Proverbs 19:25, Acts 20:35, Galatians 6:2)
  3. What does the Bible say about the treatment of animals? (Genesis 1:28, Proverbs 12:10 & 27:23, Luke 12:6)

Russ Matthews


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