This American war drama is based on the 2007 non-fiction book of the same name written by Diane Ackerman, and recounts the rescue of Jews from Nazi persecution in World War II. It was filmed in Poland, and scenes in the movie make heavy use of the actual diaries of Antonia Zabinska, the actual Zookeeper of the film’s title. Antonia’s husband was the Director of the Warsaw Zoo.
Polish couple, Antonia Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), are the keepers of the zoo. In September 1939, we see scenes of Antonia opening the zoo to welcome the crowds that come to view the animals she has in her care. Later that same month, Antonia and her son Ryszard witness the aerial bombardment of Warsaw, and their zoo is attacked. Bombs kill many of the animals, and Head of the Berlin Zoo, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) arrives to ask Antonia to let him take some of the animals that remain for his breeding experiments. Heck is the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, and wants access to the best of the breed. Antonia, desperate to save the animals in some way, agrees to his offer of help, but is appalled when Heck and his soldiers arrive later to kill them.
In the terrible events that follow, Jewish people are singled out and herded into the Ghetto, and Antonia and Jan devise a plan to rescue as many refugees as they can. The Ghetto is later burned, and all those inside it are killed. Antonia and Jan hide their real intentions from Heck who later finds out she and Jan have plotted against him to protect Jewish people. When the war ends, Antonia rebuilds her zoo, and both Antonia and her husband are publicly recognised two years later by Israel for the courage that they showed.
The film is a powerful and moving story about a fearless woman and her husband who risk death by hiding Jewish refugees in the basement of their home in the Warsaw Zoo. It is inspirational in spirit and tone, and aims to capture the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust in a distinctive way. Scenes of Jessica Chastain with the animals are amazing, and have great emotional impact.
Niki Caro directs the movie by focusing on cruelty in a very unusual setting, rather than exploring intensively the drama of the survival and rescue of individual people. There are harrowing and moving scenes of the human tragedy that unfolds around the Zoo and the Ghetto. This is particularly evident in scenes where innocent young children put their hands out for help to be lifted onto the carriage of the train that will take them to their death. The early focus on the animals provides a moving contrast to the evil that exists elsewhere, and images of the terrified animals are dramatically very realistic. There is unquestionable power and force in the parallel that the film draws between the arrival of the Nazis, and the ensuing slaughter of the animals.
Chastain gives a particularly compelling performance as a woman with inner strength who lives a life of fear amidst the perils of the German invasion of her country. The movie is most forceful when it focuses on Antonia at home and in her zoo in Warsaw. Through her empathy for others and her humanity, the film shows vividly what the Nazis tried to take from the Jewish people. Aided by moving shots of the animals in distress, the viewer comes to understand a little better the compassion of those, like Antonio and Jan, who acted so courageously.
This is an uplifting film that resonates with human courage. It steers away from confronting the darkest parts of the Holocaust, but aims to inspire in a novel way. In doing that, it preserves human values and good grace at a particularly terrible time in human history.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting