The Zabiniskis were two of many silent heroes who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Turning their zoo into a sanctuary, Antonina and her husband Jan secretly rescued hundreds of Jewish people from the Warsaw Ghetto and sheltered them in their home. In those several years in the shadows, all but two managed to escape the jaws of Nazi Germany.
The Zabinskis' bravery is beautifully told in "The Zookeeper’s Wife," directed by Niki Caro.
Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh and Daniel Brühl give believable and powerful performances as they act out the Zabinskis' dangerous hospitality and a German soldier's growing suspicions. We cried when they cried. We gasped when they gasped.
I’m not exaggerating. In an early press screening, the entire theater gasped when one of the Jews hiding in the Zabinskis' home was nearly caught by the house cook. Some people in the theater yelled “no!”
One woman even screamed an expletive.
With its fine cast and direction, the film powerfully captures Nazi Germany's terror. I have to respectfully disagree with a fellow movie reviewer at The New York Times who suggested the film waters down the Holocaust to the point it seems “tame.” The film may not be overly graphic in nature, but it does not take away from the shock value. A few scenes that will remain with you after you leave the theater (at least they remained with me) include the moment German troops shoot a mother and her daughter at point blank range and when two soldiers sexually abuse a 14-year-old girl – hardly scenes for the faint of heart. I think the film actually benefits from its PG-13 rating, providing an open door for younger generations to view it and understand what the Jewish people endured.
The compelling film's success is two-fold: It captures the terror of Nazi Germany's occupation, yet highlights the compassion that arose amidst the destruction. "The Zookeeper’s Wife" should be added right next to "Schindler's List" on the catalogue of required screenings for history class.
The film is out in theaters Friday.