“War didn’t only sunder people, Antonina mused in her memoirs, it could also intensify friendships and spark romances; every handshake opened a door or steered fate.”
–Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife
Wars, to those who lived long enough to share their stories would tell you that these hostilities could either make or break you, where the damage could have long lasting effect to your entirety. Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife gave us the story of the Żabiński’s, whose courage and heroism during the World War II was highlighted in flourishing descriptions and factual allegory.
The Żabiński’s story is a celebration of life in itself. As successful zookeepers, Jan and Antonina were known for their intricate knowledge and stewardship to animals under their care. The invasion of Nazi in Warsaw forced them to turn their zoo into a villa used as gardens, even a farm supervised by Germans, but behind closed doors and despite the presence of German soldiers day in and day out, they used their zoo’s underground building, tunnels as safe place for Jews in hiding.
There was an undeniably fearsome theme in their account. Imagine trying to survive a Great War in constant alarm and woe, knowing your lives are in line should you get caught hiding Jews. But knowing the danger, this didn’t hinder the Żabiński’s from saving lives.
I was invited to see the movie in advance a couple of weeks ago. I went there knowing wholeheartedly that the book will never transfer and flow to the big screen entirely. So, I sat in the theater, embracing that thought with complete respect. I must admit, I went in there with only about a 1/3 of the book read, but despite that, the movie had its own separate charm and power.
The movie opened with delectable showcase of the Żabiński’s zoo animals- the calm before the storm as we know it. Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of Jan and Antonia gave us an effective characterization of an empathic zookeepers, of compassionate human beings in the midst of a global war.
If you’re looking for an epic world movie with grandiose display of visual effects, production design, these categories took a back seat in the film and gave the Żabiński’s humanitarianism its main focal point.
The book contained series of factual events and names that I tried to search for while watching the film, but despite the absence of these facts, or additions, what the film highlighted was enough and effective. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Urzula’s story effectively portrayed by Shaira Haas- a young 14-year old girl violated by a couple of German soldiers. Her story was the truest representation of what war must have been like- regardless of age, no Jew was safe.
The Żabiński’s story, through this film, not only took a pluck to my heartstring, but it definitely left a pivotal lesson that despite the evils of the wars, there are still stories of heroism and courage buried under rubbles of forgotten memories of the war waiting to be told, and thanks to Focus Features, we get to see a part of that rubble.