The Zookeeper’s Wife is a 2017 war drama film directed by Niki Caro and written by Angela Workman, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, recounting the rescue of Jews from the Nazi invasion.[Note 1] The film stars Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton and Daniel Brühl.
The Zookeeper’s Wife had its world premiere on March 8, 2017, in Warsaw, Poland, the location of the story, followed by screening at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California, on March 12, 2017. It was released in the United States on March 31, 2017, by Focus Features and in the United Kingdom on April 21, 2017. It also screened in Competition at the Barcelona-Sant Jordi Film Festival on April 22, 2017.
Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife, Antonina (Jessica Chastain), are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo (Miejski Ogród Zoologiczny), one of the largest and most prolific zoos in 1930s Europe. In the calm of September 1939, Antonina opens the zoo gates. Hours before the zoo opens for the day, a crowd had already gathered to view the many species on display in the zoo. Jan is the director of the Warsaw Zoo and faces the scornful, yet envious advances of Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the head of the Berlin Zoo and “Hitler’s zoologist”.
On September 1, 1939, Antonina and her son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and later, Val Maloku) are shocked witnesses to the aerial bombardment of Warsaw as German forces storm Poland. The zoo is not spared; bombs raze the cages and kill many of the animals. As Polish resistance collapses under overwhelming odds, Dr. Heck arrives at the zoo, beseeching Antonia to let him save the “prize” specimens. Antonina reluctantly consents, but then learns that his motives are suspect. With the onset of winter, Heck again appears, this time to slaughter all the remaining caged animals, which he declares is an act of mercy as they would surely die in the cold. Heck, however, takes a certain delight in shooting an eagle himself, then casually telling an aide to have it stuffed.
Warsaw becomes the scene of a monstrous upheaval. Jews are singled out before their stores and shops are looted, and they are eventually herded into the Ghetto. Wearing Star of David armbands, two of the Zabinskis’ friends, Maurycy Fraenkel (Iddo Goldberg) and his partner Magda Gross (Efrat Dor), seek a haven, not for themselves but for another friend’s notable insect collection. Antonina makes an unusual offer to shelter Magda in an attic closet. Jan and his wife take stock of what defiance of the Nazis would mean, but come to the realization that they can save one life.
With the zoo to be closed permanently, Jan and Antonia seek out Heck, who has now set up headquarters in Warsaw for his groundbreaking research in animal breeding. The Zabinskis make a daring proposal to turn the remaining structures into a pig farm to ultimately provide food for the occupying forces. Intrigued, Heck is also looking for a home for his diabolical experiments on recreating ancient beasts.[Note 2]
The Zabinskis devise an elaborate plan to spirit away Jews from the Ghetto. While trying to rescue a group of Jews, Jan discovers a young girl, Urszula (Shira Haas), who had just been raped by two Nazi guards.
The Żabińskis continue to save more Jews and are even able to disguise women as Aryan by bleaching their hair. However, in 1942, the Nazis begin deporting Jews out of the Ghetto to the death camps. Jan is devastated to see young children being put into cattle cars, leading to the camps.
In 1943, two women that Antonina disguised as Aryans are discovered, arrested and executed in the middle of the street. After hearing of the incident, Antonina decides that it is too dangerous to disguise people as Aryans. Several months later, after a failed uprising, the Nazis announce that they will be burning the Ghetto. While the Jews in the Żabiński household celebrate Passover, the Nazis burn the Ghetto, killing any remaining Jews inside.
Several months later, Antonina has become pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl, whom Ryszard names Teresa. As Heck takes a liking to Antonina, Jan participates in the Warsaw uprising, in which he is shot in the neck and captured.
Two years later, in January 1945, with Soviet troops advancing, the Nazis begin evacuating Warsaw. In a last attempt to find out where her husband is being held, Antonina visits Heck to get his help. Heck refuses, revealing to Antonina that he once heard Ryszard say “Hitler ist kaputt” and blaming Antonina for resistance activity. Heck attacks Antonina in a rage of sexual aggression. It is then that he realizes she does not want him, that she’s repulsed by him. She has been lying to him all along. Antonina escapes back to the zoo, warning her guests just in time for their escape. Magda takes baby Teresa with her as Antonina hides Ryszard in the basement, knowing Heck will come back. He arrives in a fury with his men, barging into the villa’s basement and discovering at last secret drawings on the walls: yellow stars and dates, and images of hidden Jewish guests drawn with animal faces. In raging retaliation, Heck chases Ryszard through the basement’s lion tunnel and outside again, seizing him at gunpoint. Antonina begs Heck not to kill Ryszard but he drags the boy away. A tense beat; a shot rings out off-screen. Antonina collapses in sobs. And then Ryszard suddenly returns, victim of a cruel hoax. Lutz Heck leaves the zoo for good, and Antonina and Ryszard join the long march out of Warsaw, taking with them a rabbit and one of Heck’s test subjects, a young bison. As they leave their home and the city is liberated, they release the bison into the woods.
Four months after the Nazi surrender, Warsaw begins to be rebuilt. Antonina, Ryszard and baby Teresa return. The zoo is terribly damaged but still standing. Jerzyk, the old zookeeper, is there to greet them. Spring comes as they begin to rebuild, and with them, Urszula, Magda, and Maurycy. As birds return and life resumes, Antonina looks up to see Jan walking home, a survivor of a prison camp. Antonina runs into his arms.
In the film’s final moment, the Żabińskis paint Stars of David on all the cages in the zoo.
The Postscript tells us that Lutz Heck returned to Berlin, only to find his zoo destroyed by Allied bombings. His efforts to recreate extinct aurochs failed. The Żabińskis were eventually recognized by Yad V’shem for their righteous acts and defiance against the Nazis. The Warsaw Zoo remains open to this day.
Directed by Niki Caro
Diane Miller Levin
Written by Angela Workman
Based on The Zookeeper’s Wife
by Diane Ackerman
Music by Harry Gregson-Williams
Cinematography Andrij Parekh
Edited by David Coulson
Electric City Entertainment
Distributed by Focus Features
March 8, 2017 (Poland)
March 31, 2017 (United States)
April 21, 2017 (United Kingdom)
Budget $20 million
Box office $23.9 million