Opening wide in theaters today, The Zookeeper’s Wife reminds me again why movies are important. Although set in World War II’s Warsaw, this film’s themes of courage, compassion and conviction are a bold historical lesson with great relevance to today’s international climate. For me, they also paint a vibrant example of the Feminine Genius. Watch this movie, and you will find yourself pondering, “What would I have done?”, and perhaps more importantly, “What should I be doing NOW?” in the face of so many around our world who need not only our prayers but also our considerable help.
Two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain stars in The Zookeeper’s Wife in the title role of Antonina Żabińska, a real-life working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during WWII. Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) directs the movie from a screenplay by Angela Workman, adapted from Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book of the same name which was based on Antonina’s diaries. The time is 1939. The place is Poland, homeland of Antonina (portrayed by Ms. Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh, of The Broken Circle Breakdown). Devoted to each other, the couple thrive as personal and professional partners; the Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. With reserves of energy, Antonina rises every day to tend to both her family and their menagerie, as the gates to the majestic zoo open in welcome… …until the entrance is slammed shut and the zoo is crippled in an attack as the entire country is invaded by the Germans. Stunned, the couple is forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Golden Globe Award nominee Daniel Brühl of Captain America: Civil War). Heck envisions a new, selective breeding program for the zoo. Antonina and Jan fight back on their own terms, and covertly begin working with the Resistance – realizing that their zoo’s abandoned animal cages and underground tunnels, originally designed to safeguard animal life, can now secretly safeguard human life. As the couple puts into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, Antonina places herself and even her children at great risk.
While The Zookeeper’s Wife is beautifully crafted and stunningly acted, my eyes and heart were firmly glued upon Jessica Chastain’s Antonina Żabińska. In watching the film, which is based upon a book by the same name and inspired by Antonina Żabińska’s diaries, I found myself so moved by Antonina’s clear response to the stirrings of what we Catholics would call “the Feminine Genius”. I consider these traits to be the qualities that led her to courageously risk so much to save hundreds of lives in partnership with her husband and son. As Pope Saint John Paul II taught us, the four traits of receptivity, sensitivity, generosity and maternity are at work in the heart and soul of every woman. For me, Antonina’s courage blossomed from the seeds of these qualities. Little is made in the film of her Catholic upbringing, but I found this story to be an intense personal call to prayer and reflection.
This is a challenging movie to watch. There are a few moments of intense, although not gratuitously graphic, violence which are altogether appropriate to the film’s setting. There are a few mildly “adult” moments, but they are set within the context of a loving marriage. For me, one of the most challenging aspects of the film was Antonina’s very complicated relationship with the Nazi head of the Berlin Zoo Lutz Heck. As my friend Sister Rose Pacatte pointed out to me following our screening of the film, Antonina fought her own very personal war with evil, and a good deal of that had to do with her interactions with Lutz.
It’s easy to fall in love with Antonina early in the film as we witness her genius affinity for the animals she and Jan care for. Who wouldn’t want to snuggle with tiger cubs or bike alongside a galloping young camel? Even Antonina’s love for playing her piano becomes a signal to the families she and Jan shelter when it’s safe for them to venture forth from their hiding places every night. But it is the mother in Antonina that gives her the capacity to do whatever it takes to save those she brings into her home. While the film certainly gives us a full look at the heroism of both Żabińskas, it is in the end the Zookeeper’s wife who won my heart.
The Zookeeper’s Wife challenges each of us to ask ourselves, “What would I do to help save innocent lives? How courageous could I be?” Intensely gripping and compellingly acted, Niki Caro’s visionary film is all the more emotional because of its attention to the truth of what really happened in Warsaw. Go to be challenged and leave with a new perspective on how each of us can be a part of the path to peace.
For more information:
- The Zookeeper’s Wife Website
- Social Media: Facebook, Twitter
- Catholic News Agency Review
- The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story
Copyright Lisa M. Hendey
Image Credits: Focus Films. Used with permission.