In late 1939, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain, The Help) live a peaceful and lovely life at their home on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo. Jan is a brilliant and respected zoologist, and his lovely wife Antonina has a special way with the animals, with each of them being dear friends to her. During a cocktail party, she catches the eye of Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, Inglourious Basterds), Nazi zoologist, who is especially impressed with how she handles an elephant's difficult birth. From then on out, Antonina's life would be impacted by the man.
Fast-forward to the Nazis invading Poland and the zoo suffers a brutal bombing, along with the Nazi's decision that the Warsaw Zoo is disposable. Heck has a plan to save their most prized animals, while Antonina and Jan come up with a plan to keep the place going by turning it into a pig farm to feed the Nazi soldiers who have taken over their facility for their own. The icing on the cake is that the pigs can eat garbage scraps from the Jewish ghetto and Jan can now slip in and out of the ghetto with a large truck, spiriting away Jews to the now mostly empty zoo. It is a dangerous game, however, as Lutz Heck is constantly coming around to see Antonina, especially while Jan is away. As her basement fills with a constant stream of frightened Jews, she must keep Lutz intrigued, but not too close.
Meanwhile, Jan is deeply involved with the Polish Resistance, regularly visiting a local bakery for forged papers to help the Jews escape. He also becomes involved with a kindred spirit at the Labor Division in the Jewish ghetto, making it that much easier to get more Jews out, and as the war draws to a close, they rush to save as many as possible, with utter destruction on the horizon for the entire ghetto and its inhabitants.
When Jan and Antonina's bored young son Rys (Val Maloku) leaves the relative safety of the zoo one day to follow his father, he sets off a chain of events that could compromise the whole operation, endangering not only the hidden Jews, but also his parents. Before long, Antonina's back is against the wall, with her husband missing, a new baby girl and young Rys to protect, along with a host of Jews hiding below their home, some of whom have been there for several years and are like family, and she has very few options left.
The Zookeeper's Wife is incredibly moving and horrifying, but Jessica Chastain is such a delicate and beautiful presence throughout the film. The way she works with the animals in the film (all practical, no CG) seems to capture the spirit of Antonina Zabinski and is lovely to see. I am always interested to see films where individuals put themselves in peril to rescue the horribly persecuted Jewish people during Hitler's reign of terror, but I really enjoyed this different take on things, with Antonina using her wits and feminine wiles to not only keep the German menace close but not too close, but to nurture and care for those with no hope.
The entire cast is wonderful, from the chemistry between Chastain and her on-screen husband, Johan Heldenbergh, to the revolting and encroaching menace of Daniel Bruhl as Heck, to Jan's right hand man at the zoo, Jerzyk (Michael McElhatton), to the rescued Jews who remained with them, such as their best friends Madga (Efrat Dor) and Maurycy (Iddo Goldberg), and young rape victim Urszula (Shira Haas).
Special features are few, but worth mentioning. There are a handful of short deleted scenes, a making-of that gives insight into how the film was made and just how much went into the realism depicted therein, and finally, a featurette on the actual Zabinski family, with a short interview with Rys and Teresa, the still living Zabinski children.
If you have any interest in WWII, The Zookeeper's Wife is must-see. It's an incredible story, filled with hope and human kindness amidst what remains the greatest atrocity history has to offer. Highly, highly recommended.