Antonina Żabiński was a real woman born in Russia who survived a revolution as a child, only to grow up and face the harrowing Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. Eventually, she was declared Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel. But before that, she was a zookeeper’s wife.
I’ve seen a lot of WWII and Holocaust-era films in my life, but even so, I shed tears at this one. Director Niki Caro (McFarland, USA, Whalerider) and Screenwriter Angela Workman (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) wove many elements together to create a subtle and emotionally compelling tapestry, complemented stunningly by Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane) and Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown) as Polish zookeepers Antonina and Jan Żabiński.
In The Zookeeper’s Wife, the Żabińskis and their young son Ryszard (Timothy Radford, Val Maloku) built and run the Warsaw Zoo, and it’s become a sort of sanctuary for the little family as the threat of the Nazis looms dark over Europe. At the heart of this film is the zookeeper’s wife herself, Antonina, and the almost preternatural love she holds for their animals. She surveys the grounds like a benevolent queen overlooking her kingdom (fresh-faced Chastain was truly the perfect casting choice) and then leaves the comfort of the villa to care for her creatures in the mud and straw. For her, the humane choice is never a choice, it is the only choice. She is fearless and wise in her relationships with the camels and elephants; she knows every animal by name – almost seems to speak their language.
But then death comes to Warsaw, and Jan convinces Antonina to open their home and grounds as a place for their Jewish neighbors to hide from Nazis. This flips her world – the love she has been able to so easily give and receive from the lion cubs and monkeys, she must now try to offer to humans. And humans are a much more complicated kind of creature.
The gentle presence of Antonina (captured to perfection by composer Harry Gregson-Williams) seems to infiltrate the way the entire film moves. Shots linger, colors and shadows are soft. Even though The Zookeeper’s Wife contains elements typical of a WWII story, (impoverished ghettos, bombs falling from the sky, buildings set aflame) director Niki Caro shies away from anything too graphic or visually disturbing. We know it’s there, but we aren’t shown much of it. I felt drawn through these dark years of Nazi invasion through the perspective of a woman determined to see beauty in the midst of sorrow – to remember life in the midst of death.
The Zookeeper’s Wife drives home the loss of innocence in wartime in a new way as we see German bombs fall on the Warsaw Zoo. We all know that men, women, and children were brutally slaughtered during this time, but the cruelty didn’t stop there. Animals are yet more unseen victims of war – innocent casualties of human violence.
As I watched Antonina’s true story unfold in this thoughtfully crafted film, my brain kept racing back to my own present time and country. What would I do if war came to my doorstep, as it came to hers? If hatred and violence surrounded me and came after my neighbors, am I the kind of person who would retreat in denial or fear? Or, like Antonina and Jan, would I give everything – every last thing – to defend and protect others? To stand up for what is right?
I’m not living under Hitler, but ethnocentric populism has been sweeping national elections all over the world. Aryanism isn’t being explicitly taught to kids in U.S. schools, but politicians in my country regularly offer speeches and platforms that vilify immigrants, nonwhite ethnic groups, and those who are LGBTQ. I’m protestant and of German descent, but I live in New York City, and my neighbors are Dominican, Italian, and Middle-eastern; they are Jews and Catholics and Muslim. They are queer and trans.
It’s not totally unfathomable that someday I might actually be called on to protect, defend, hide, or lie to save lives. Women have always been protecting, defending, hiding, and lying during wartime; it’s the burden of giving life we have shouldered while kings and presidents and armies continue to destroy.
And sometimes life-giving happens in the smallest, most unobtrusive ways. Sometimes it’s just by listening, by celebrating differences when others fear them. One of the most beautiful moments in The Zookeeper’s Wife is when Passover week arrives and a Jewish girl living in the villa quietly asks Antonina, “May we have a Seder?” I happened to watch this film during Passover as well – a time when families of Jewish faith and heritage gather for special meals and prayers which celebrate the Hebrew people finding freedom from their ancient Egyptian masters.
Even amidst the Nazi patrols and the raids, Antonina prepares a midnight Seder and joins her Jewish guests around the dinner table for this small moment of light and memory and song. There is something special about this woman, this mother, soldier, and spy.
What a legacy to leave: to not just protect, but celebrate. In a splintering, sometimes spiraling world, what a beacon of hope.