The Zookeeper's Wife

Mar 28, 2017

A welcome addition to Holocaust cinema.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Image courtesy of IMDb.

Grade: A-

Director: Niki Caro (Whale Rider)

Screenplay: Angela Workman from Diane Ackerman book

Cast: Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark 30), Daniel Bruhl (Rush)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 2 hr 4 min

by John DeSando

“The risk of the Holocaust is not that it will be forgotten, but that it will be embalmed and surrounded by monuments and used to absolve all future sins.” Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman

With no end to the sad stories of the Holocaust, now The Zookeeper's Wife adds another drama out of Warsaw in the early 1940’s as the Nazis begin to move Jews into its ghetto and eventually to concentration camps. The truth-based tale is another worthy entry in Holocaust cinema, along with Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008).

No matter the similarities with Schindler's List (1993) and Inglourious Basterds (2009), this drama is just as nail biting and terrible as the best of them. Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) watches over The Warsaw Zoo with her doctor husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). Eventually the Nazi command, personified by randy zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), takes over.

Antonina’s empathy for the animals is an antidote to Nazi indifference.  I dare you not to be moved by the lyrical opening as she rides her bicycle through the zoo in early morning calling endearingly to the animals or her rescuing a suffocating baby elephant.

Meanwhile, after being mercilessly bombed, the remnants of the zoo serve as hideaway and eventual transport for hundreds of Jews.  Director Niki Caro does an effective job creating tension, albeit built in the history of the occupation, by cutting between daily activity on the street and the hidden Jews.  The concentration on Antonia's face allows for multiple dramatic notes as she navigates between her animals and Jewish charges.

In fact, another graceful artistic direction is not overdoing the figurative comparison between those hiding and those innocent animals, which are always in the open and vulnerable.  A sweet, poetic circumstance usually contrasts with the unimaginable horror. The animals serve as a subtle reminder of lost innocence: “You look in their eyes,” and you know exactly what is in their hearts.” Antonina

The Zookeeper's Wife is a first-rate entry in the chronicles of The Holocaust and a powerful reason to continue to tell the story lest it happen again.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at