In the pantheon of holocaust cinema, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (Focus) isn’t as powerful or epic as “Schindler’s List,” but neither is it as dreadful as “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas.” Landing somewhere in between, the film, based on the book by Diane Ackerman, tells the true story of the titular Antonina Żabińska (played by Jessica Chastain), and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), and their roles in the Polish underground resistance during World War II.
Living in a home on the grounds of the zoo with their son Ryszard (Timothy Radford as the younger boy and Val Maloku as the older one), Antonina and Jan are beloved for the treatment of the animal menagerie as well as their ability to relate to the critters, and keeping them safe from harm. However, following Germany’s summer 1939 invasion of Poland, which resulted in the bombing of the zoo and the deaths of countless animals, their lives were forever changed.
Additionally, Antonina must deal with perverse German zoologist Heck (Daniel Brühl), the man in charge of the Berlin zoo. How convenient it is for him when, after the German invasion, he rises through the Nazi ranks and takes whichever of the surviving animals he wishes from the Żabińska’s zoo for his own. Heck is so caught up in his own evil mission that he doesn’t realize that, with the aid of a few loyal staff members, the Żabińskas have create a hidden safe-space for Jews on the grounds of the zoo.
As with any number of Holocaust films, drama and tensions run high in “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” There is an abundance of heart-pounding sequences, ranging from the birth and near death of an elephant calf to the horror of the bombing, from the rape of a young Jewish girl by two Nazi soldiers in the Warsaw Ghetto to Heck’s relentless pursuit of Antonina and his discovery of the activities taking place at the zoo, and the systematic emptying of the ghetto. While “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is not a great film, it is still worth seeing simply for being another chapter in the ongoing story of the Holocaust. Rating: C+