“Righteous Among the Nations” is a term used to identify and honor the non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler, remembered in “Schindler’s List,” and University of Michigan alum Raoul Wallenberg are two among the over 11,000 people considered “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem. Jan and Antonina Zabinski were also among the righteous, but only now has their story come fully to light. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” details how the Zabinskis sacrificed everything to do the right thing. Telling the stories of the righteous sheds a little light onto the darkness of tragedy.
Directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is based on Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book of the same name. The film tells the story of Warsaw Zoo runners, Jan and Antonina Zabinski and how they risked their lives to save over 300 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. They developed a strategy in which they smuggled Jews from Ghetto into their zoo for safekeeping until they could escape to safety. Shockingly, the Germans used the zoo as an arsenal; little did they know that the Zabinskis were hiding Jews right under their noses.
The story is a beautiful portrait of compassion and courage, yet it does not shy away from showing the pain and suffering in the Ghetto. The camera does not hide the death, starvation and disease that permeated its walls. Among the darkness of the Ghetto, there existed a small light, a little piece of unknown history. Yet there’s another story that has yet to be told correctly: that of the children’s doctor, educator and author Dr. Janusz Korczak. Dr. Korczak was renowned in Poland for his work in children’s education, but now he is known more as the smiling, storytelling, father figure of the Warsaw Ghetto orphanage who died with his children in Treblinka. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” highlights the many opportunities to escape that Korczak refused in order to stay with his children. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh, “The Broken Circle Breakdown”) tries to save Dr. Korczak twice in the film, but each time Korczak declines. Even as the doctor lifts his orphans into the train car that will eventually take them to their dark fate, Korczak tells them whimsical stories about Dr. Z and the planet Ro.
The film’s strong cast is led by Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) as the passionate and kind Antonia, the zookeeper’s wife with a slight Slavic accent and a strong grasp of right and wrong. The film shows Antonina as an empowered, brave woman who, partnered with her husband, saved the lives of many while sacrificing their own. Shira Haas (“A Tale of Love and Darkness”) plays the silent and scarred Urszula, a young girl from the Ghetto who was brutally assaulted and raped by two Nazis. Jan, having witnessed Urzsula’s tragedy, takes her in and brings her to the zoo where she finds healing, love and bunnies. Daniel Brühl (“Inglourious Basterds”) is haunting and sinister as “Hitler’s Zoologist” Lutz Heck — for a zoologist, he is quite involved in the war effort.
The title of the movie seems unfitting, because Antonina was not just a wife, and Jan was not just a zookeeper. Together, their zoo became a place of refuge. Ironically, the cages became freeing and the locks liberating. The film is honest without being insensitive, heartbreaking without being melodramatic and uplifting without being contrived. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a harrowing and humbling film that shows humanity in the face of inhumanity.