(Beware: There are spoilers in this review, so if you haven’t watched the movie, or if you’re not familiar with the story, you might want to postpone reading this.)
I recently watched “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which tells the story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski who ran the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis invaded Poland in September of 1939 and occupied Poland until 1945; during that time they killed millions, the majority of them Jews. Rather than look the other way, Antonina and her husband chose to use their zoo as a safe haven for those they smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. With the exception of a mother and daughter, the Zabinski’s rescued hundreds of Jews who eventually survived the war. Antonina kept a diary, which became the basis for Diane Ackerman’s book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”
I was ecstatic when I heard that the book was being into a movie. Excellently crafted, the acting was superb, the pacing and cinematography was great. Watching Antonina work with the animals, I was mesmerized and could sense her deep abiding love for them, which extended for all living creatures. I never lost interest in the stories told. For the most part, the movie remained true to the book and Antonina’s story. While not for general family viewing, due to a scene towards the end of the movie (where one character is threatened with rape), it is the perfect tool to introduce someone to the subject of the Holocaust. Especially if you’re not ready for something like “Schindler’s List.”
There were historical inaccuracies though that I couldn’t ignore. In one scene, Jan Zabinski takes his young son with him to the ghetto to smuggle Jewish people out. I can’t imagine any parent doing that, bringing a child straight into the lion’s den. Later on, Jan scolds his son for following to him on a resistance mission. Those two scenes contradict one another. Staying on topic of the son; at one point the boy shouts “Hitler ist Kaputt” which wouldn’t have happened. While it was painted all over Warsaw, children knew better than to say such a thing aloud. They knew it would lead to death. Also, Lutz Heck (the Zabinski’s former friend and now Nazi enthusiast) gives the boy the Nazi salute…while it may have been an attempt to trick him into trusting him, Germans looked down on the Poles as subhuman. A Polish person could not use the Hitler salute.
The Zabinski’s Jewish guests hide in the cellar and some of the children paint on the walls. That may have happened, but the Jewish guests would not have painted Stars of David on the walls. It would have been evidence of their existence. Antonina also would not have painted Star of David’s on the structures in post-war Poland, because antisemitism was still running rampant. My biggest issue has to be how Antonina used her “feminine wiles” to lead Lutz Heck on, as a means of protecting her Jewish guests. Yes, the Zabinski’s and Lutz Heck had been friends and Zabinski’s used their friendship to manipulate Lutz. Lutz probably had feelings for Antonina too, but they were never on the brink of an affair. Nor did Antonina go to Lutz and offer herself up for information, and it did not turn into an attempted rape. Lutz locking Antonina in one of the animal pens and leading her son off to be shot, did not happen. (Also, what happened to the baby? She disappeared not long after her birth and showed up again as a two-year-old.)
Aside from those minor objections (I can be persnickety from time to time), it was a remarkable movie about remarkable people. Antonina is someone we can all aspire to be.
Have you seen “The Zookeeper’s Wife?” What are your thoughts?