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Movie Review

Each morning, Antonina Żabińska unlocks the front gate of the Warsaw Zoo. A smile as radiant as the rising sun brightens her countenance as she commences her morning rounds on a bicycle. There are elephants and a hungry hippo to feed … by hand. Lion cubs to cuddle with. (In fact they sleep with her young son, Ryszard.) A playful camel chases her daily, too.

Antonina and her beloved husband, Jan Żabiński, tend to the animals almost like family. And in a way, they are. The Warsaw Zoo, their home, is an Edenic, innocent place of wonder and beauty where a loving husband and wife tenderly care for their furry charges and invite others to take joy in the majestic creatures too.

But it's 1939. And rumors of Germany's aggressive intentions toward Poland all too quickly prove to be deadly reality.

Bombs fall on Warsaw. And upon the Żabińskis' zoo. Civilians die. Animals die. German troops occupy the city, including a gifted zoologist whom the Żabińskis knew before the invasion, an ambitious scientist named Lutz Heck. Only now he's also an SS officer, Hitler's chief zoologist.

The Jews who haven't fled are initially treated abusively. Then they're caged up like animals in what comes to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Żabińskis harbor no malice or prejudice for the Jewish people, many of whom are their friends. Soon they decide to shelter Antonina's best friend, Magda. But her husband, Maurycy, is imprisoned in the ghetto, along with so many others.

Lutz soon informs Antonina that most of the remaining animals in the zoo will be euthanized because there's no food for them for the winter. (There's very little food for the Jewish people in Warsaw, either, but the Germans care little about that.) The best of the Żabińskis' animals, Lutz says, will be taken to Berlin.

With loss piling upon the specter of even more loss, the Żabińskis hatch an audacious plan. What if, Antonina suggests to Lutz, they turned the zoo into a pig farm, raising animals to feed the German soldiers there? And what if they used garbage from the ghetto to feed the animals? And what if the Żabińskis ran the whole operation?

Lutz—who's coming around more and more frequently now, sporting an obvious, ominous attraction to pretty Antonina—quickly agrees. What an irony, he suggests laughingly, Jews' garbage being used to feed pigs and then to feed Germans.

But Lutz has no idea the Żabińskis' suggestion is actually a carefully cloaked ploy to smuggle as many Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto as possible before the Holocaust's genocidal gears begin to turn in earnest.
*[The following sections contain spoilers.] *

Positive Elements

Early on, Jan is skeptical about hiding even their friend, Magda. He tells his wife that they could be shot just for offering a glass of water to a Jewish person, let alone hiding one in their house.

But Jan quickly comes around, agreeing to take the risk. Soon he's taking risks far greater, smuggling Jews out two, three, four at a time in his garbage gathering truck. Along the way, a few other brave souls in Warsaw figure out what's happening and offer to help Jan sneakily remove still more people from their bitter conditions (including starvation and freezing to death) in the so-called Warsaw Ghetto.

Some of the Jews whom Jan helps escape essentially live out most of the war in the Żabińskis' basement. Others, with the couple's help, are moved to other safe houses and even passage out of Warsaw.

Antonina, for her part, understands that she must encourage Lutz's creepy attraction to her in an effort to keep him distracted. (That effort's largely successful, and I'll say more about it in Sexual Content.)

Jan and Antonina take different risks—Jan's is the more obvious, smuggling Jews out of the ghetto; Antonina's is more intimate and, in some ways, more dangerous. And in stoking Lutz's unwanted affections, she's forced to ask some pretty serious questions: She asks another character if it's wrong to allow something so morally repugnant to happen (she has no interest in Lutz whatsoever and is, in fact, repulsed by him) in order to save the lives of a people who will surely die otherwise. Her sounding board says that in such difficult times, it's hard to know what's really right or wrong if it involves saving others.

One of the people Jan rescues is a young girl named Urszula who's been brutally assaulted (off camera). Her trauma leaves her speechless for days, but Antonina gradually wins her trust and affection and helps nurse her back to emotional health. Urszula is one of a handful of Jews who spend years in the Żabińskis' basement, and collectively they essentially become a kind of foster family. Each night after the Germans leave the premises at midnight, the Jews in hiding come up for wine, laughter and piano playing—affirming and restoring the fugitives' dignity.

Spiritual Content

Obviously, Warsaw's Jews are being persecuted for their ethnicity and faith. We see that they're forced to wear yellow bands marking their identity with a star of David. As an act of catharsis, Urszula draws many yellow stars of David in the area where she sleeps.

We hear a few passing references to God and pleas for prayer for the Jews trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jewish people hiding in the Żabińskis' basement celebrate a somber Passover meal, with Urszula singing a traditional Jewish song.

Sexual Content

Jan and Antonina deeply love each other. They kiss passionately on several occasions. They share a scene in bed in which they're both apparently naked, and the camera twice briefly shows Antonina's bared breast. Another encounter involves them kissing and embracing fiercely as they tumble roughly onto bed together. (Antonina is also shown a couple of times in a clingy nightgown, while Jan is shown shirtless and in boxers.) Someone else makes a snide double entendre joke about Jan "playing with his monkeys."

Lutz clearly is attracted to Antonina, an affection she encourages (even though she has no interest in the man). We see him touching her hands suggestively in more than one scene, and she embraces him in another to keep him from hearing a child making noise in her basement. While two bison mate in the zoo, Lutz stands behind her and roughly pulls her toward him.

A conversation between Jan and Antonina early on seems to suggest that she's willing to go as far as necessary with Lutz, sexually speaking, in order to save people. Later on, however, it's painfully obvious that Jan didn't really understand what his wife was implying, and he's devastated by the attention that Lutz is giving her—and what he fears his wife might be willing to let the man do to her.

In a desperate bid to get critical information out of Lutz near the end of the film, Antonina dresses up nicely and visits him in his office. When he asks what she'll give him in return for the information, she begins unbuttoning her shirt. The ensuing embrace, however, turns quickly into an interrogation and …

Violent Content

… a violent assault. Lutz has figured out that Antonina and Jan have been hiding Jews, and he tosses her roughly on the bed and climbs on top of her to, it would seem, rape her. But when she tells him, "You disgust me," he relents.

Earlier in the film, young Urszula does not escape that fate. The girl, who probably isn't even a teen, is dragged into an alley and raped by two German soldiers. We don't see the assault, but we do see the terrified and tramautized girl stumble out of an alley with bruises and cuts on her face as well as blood running down her leg beneath her dress. Jan, who saw her pulled away and witnesses her coming out, mercifully helps her to escape the ghetto.

The initial bombing of Warsaw destroys buildings and kills both humans and animals. We see the corpses of both. Lutz cruelly shoots several animals, including a majestic bald eagle that plunges to the ground after being shot. An elephant and a camel are also shot and killed, and we hear gunshots claiming other animals' lives.

Two older Jewish women who've dyed their hair and live in a safe house in Warsaw are recognized, with German soldiers brutally dragging them into the street and executing them with pistols (most of which we witness).

Lutz holds Antonina's young son at gunpoint, shoving a pistol to his jaw. There's a gunshot offscreen, and the devastated mother is certain that her son has been executed.

Battles between resistance fighters and German soldiers near the end of the film include gunfire and Molotav cocktails, killing people on both sides. Multiple men are shot (one man in the neck); a German soldier is shown burning. Germans also use flamethrowers to burn down the ghetto with people still inside. We hear their screams; we see a rabbi in a synagogue who refuses to leave as the Germans torch the place. Ashes from the ghetto fire are so thick that a little boy at the Żabińskis' home thinks it's snowing.

Heartbreaking scenes show Jews, many of them children, getting on trains headed for concentration camps. (They are unaware of the fate that awaits them.) A courageous old scholar declines to have Jan help him escape, saying instead that he must stay with the children to help them cope with their fears. He knows that doing so is a death sentence.

Antonina helps a newborn elephant that's struggling for life, and she ends up covered in blood. We also hear Antonina cry out as she gives birth.

Crude or Profane Language

None.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Various adult characters smoke cigarettes and drink wine (usually at meals) throughout the film.

Other Negative Elements

Antonina and Lutz repeatedly end up with bloody, gooey hands after working with animals.

Conclusion

The Zookeeper's Wife, based on a true story, is a tender, beautiful, courage-filled movie. It's also grim, devastating, at times surprisingly graphic for a PG-13 film.

Let's deal with that latter element first.

I was pretty surprised that a scene between Antonina and Jan included flashes of nudity, content that seems as if it could have easily been avoided. Granted, those two moments are blink-and-you'll-miss them short. Still, I couldn't help but question that directorial decision.

As for the movie's two sexual assaults, they're explicit in different ways. Lutz's attack on Antonina ultimately stops short of rape; but that only partially mitigates the scene's intensity and the fact that neither we, nor Antonina, know how it's going to turn out.

Young Urszula's tragic rape, in contrast, is only suggested. But the visual implication of it—her shocked visage, her bloody face and leg—is deeply disturbing.

Elsewhere, the film's violence can be similarly discomfiting. Two women are brutally executed at gunpoint. Bombs, bullets, poverty and cold all result in human and animal deaths.

All in all, The Zookeeper's Wife shows us an extraordinarily brave couple who give everything they have to help Jewish souls—300 the film tells us—escape the nightmarish fate threatened by the invading Nazis. It's an inspiring story, but one set during a dark, desperate and degrading moment of human history.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults

Credits

Rating

PG-13

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Jessica Chastain as Antonina Żabińska; Johan Heldenbergh as Jan Żabiński; Daniel Brühl as Lutz Heck; Val Maloku as Ryszard Żabiński; Tim Radford as Young Ryszard Żabiński; Iddo Goldberg as Maurycy Fraenkel; Efrat Dor as Magda Gross; Michael McElhatton as Jerzyk; Shira Haas as Urszula; Goran Kostić as Mr. Kinszerbaum

Director

Niki Caro ( McFarland USANorth CountryWhale Rider)

Distributor

Focus Features

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

March 31, 2017

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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