“Adapted from Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name, Niki Caro’s latest film relays the remarkable true story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter) and Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh, The Brand New Testament), the kind-hearted goyim who ran the Warsaw Zoo during the Nazi occupation and spared some love for every species of guest whom they invited onto their sprawling property.
Antonina, a regal sort of woman who assumes a different, more domestic kind of heroism than we are used to seeing in films about the resistance, is depicted as being particularly protective of all God’s creatures. Blessed with a maternal streak as fierce as mother nature’s itself, Antonina lets a lion cub sleep beside her young son, Ryszard, she lets a skunk move in to her bedroom, and—in an incredible first act sequence that vividly establishes her empathetic spirit—she even helps revive a suffocating baby elephant.
So when the calendar flips to 1939 and the Germans swarm into Poland, leveling much of the Warsaw Zoo in a surreal scene that sends camels and tigers wandering through the metropolitan streets, Mr. and Mrs. Żabiński immediately default to the defense of life. Together, with the help of a loyal groundskeeper (Michael McElhatton, Albert Nobbs), Jan and Antonina secretly begin transforming their shattered menagerie into a vital way station in the city’s underground railroad.
Their system is as brilliant as it is simple: Jan drives his truck into the ghetto under the pretense of collecting garbage to feed the pigs he’s farming for the Nazis, and he drives his truck out of the ghetto with as many stowaways as he can fit under the heaps of trash in his cargo. Antonina takes over from there, funneling the fugitive children out of the city through the labyrinth of tunnels that slither beneath the house, and dyeing her female guests blonde so that she can pass them off in broad daylight. The Nazi soldiers stationed at the zoo are completely oblivious to what’s going on right below their noses—not even Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, Ladies in Lavender), the horny mad scientist who leverages his status as Hitler’s favorite zoologist to sexually threaten Antonina—has the slightest idea that his crush is cucking him with basic decency.
And decency, in its raw, instinctive form, is ultimately what earns The Zookeeper’s Wife a place in the self-conflicted canon of Holocaust cinema. One of those lush, handsomely shot historical dramas where everyone speaks heavily accented English instead of the characters’ native tongue, Caro’s film may come to feel like an unlikely cross between We Bought a Zoo and Schindler’s List, but it vibes on a wavelength all its own because of how completely it shirks the matter of a moral awakening. Antonina isn’t some lecherous capitalist who needs to learn the value of human life, she’s just a human who finds herself living through some decidedly inhumane times—the Holocaust doesn’t change her, it just strengthens her resolve. A fundamental sense of empathy may not be especially cinematic, but that’s no reason to ignore it (and Chastain, who strikes a wonderful balance with Heldenbergh, is masterful at expressing stoicism without ever tipping into sanctimony). Compassion, Antonina’s experience remembers for us, is always heroic.” (David Ehrlich, IndieWire)
“There’s something powerful to be read into every action, line, and image. Subtle yet striking, this is a film that is filled with the power of exquisitely executed storytelling.” (Chelsey Grasso, The Film Stage)