The Zookeeper's Wife (film)
The Zookeeper's Wife is a 2017 war drama film directed by Niki Caro, written by Angela Workman and based on Diane Ackerman's non-fiction book of the same name. The film tells the true story of how Jan and Antonina Żabiński rescued hundreds of Jews from the Germans by hiding them in their Warsaw zoo during World War II.[Note 1] It stars Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl and Michael McElhatton.
|The Zookeeper's Wife|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Niki Caro|
|Written by||Angela Workman|
|Based on||The Zookeeper's Wife|
by Diane Ackerman
|Music by||Harry Gregson-Williams|
|Edited by||David Coulson|
|Distributed by||Focus Features|
|Box office||$26.1 million|
The film had its world premiere on March 8, 2017 in Warsaw, Poland, the location of the story, followed by its US premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California, on March 12, 2017. The film was released in the United States on March 31, 2017, by Focus Features, and by Universal Pictures International in the United Kingdom on April 21, 2017. It received mixed reviews from critics but a positive response from audiences and grossed $26 million worldwide.
On September 1, 1939, the aerial bombardment of Warsaw and Invasion of Poland commences. Antonina and her son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and later, Val Maloku) barely survive. As Polish resistance collapses, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), head of the Berlin Zoo and Adolf Hitler's chief zoologist and Jan's professional rival, visits the zoo while Jan is away. He offers to house the prized animals until after the war, later returning with Nazi soldiers to shoot the rest. He develops a romantic interest in Antonina.
The Jews of Warsaw are forced into the Ghetto. The Żabińskis‘ Jewish friends, Maurycy Fraenkel (Iddo Goldberg) and his partner Magda Gross (Efrat Dor), seek a safe place for a friend's insect collection. Antonina offers to shelter Magda. Knowing they can be executed for helping Jews, Jan and Antonina decide to use the zoo to save more lives.
They seek out Heck to propose turning the abandoned zoo into a pig farm to feed the German occupying forces, secretly hoping to bring food to the Ghetto. Heck, in need of a new site for his experiments in recreating aurochs as a symbol of the Reich,[Note 2] agrees.
Jan collects garbage from the Ghetto for the pigs and sees Jews starving. He begins working with the Underground Army to transport Jews to safehouses throughout the country. Jews are hidden in the zoo’s cages, tunnels, and inside the Żabińskis’ house. After some trepidation, Antonina agrees to help.
The Żabińskis continue smuggling Jews out of the Ghetto. In 1942, the Germans begin deporting Jews to death camps. Jan has no choice but to help load them into cattle cars under the Germans' watch.
In 1943, two women rescued by Jan and disguised as Aryans by Antonina are executed in a Warsaw street. Several months later, after a failed uprising, the Germans plan to liquidate the Ghetto on Hitler's birthday, also the first night of Passover. While the hidden Jews mournfully celebrate a secret Passover Seder, the Germans burn the Ghetto, killing those inside.
Several months later, Antonina gives birth to a baby girl, whom Ryszard names Teresa. As Heck's attraction to Antonina intensifies, she struggles to fend him off while guarding the secret "guests." Jan participates in the Warsaw uprising and is captured; Antonina fears him dead.
In January 1945, as Soviet troops force the Germans to retreat, the enemy begins evacuating Warsaw. Antonina seeks Heck's help to find Jan, but he refuses and accuses her of resistance activity, attacking her in a sexual rage. She confesses that he repulses her, and Heck realizes she has duped him. Antonina helps her guests escape. Magda takes baby Teresa with her as Antonina hides Ryszard in the basement. Heck arrives in a fury with his men, discovering the secret drawings on the basement walls: Stars of David, dates, and guests drawn with animal faces.
Heck threatens to shoot Ryszard, ignoring Antonina’s pleas as he drags her son away. A shot rings out and Antonina collapses. Ryszard returns unharmed, and Heck leaves the zoo for good. Antonina and Ryszard join the march out of Warsaw, bringing a rabbit and one of Heck's young bison. As they leave their home and the city is liberated, they release the bison into the woods.
Four months after the Nazi surrender, Warsaw begins rebuilding. Antonina, Ryszard and baby Teresa return to find the damaged zoo still standing, along with Jerzyk, their loyal zookeeper. Jan returns home, having survived a prison camp.
In the film's final moment, the Żabińskis paint Stars of David on all the cages in the zoo.
An epilogue reveals that the Żabińskis saved 300 people. Lutz Heck returned to Berlin, where his zoo was destroyed by Allied bombings, and his efforts to recreate aurochs failed. The Żabińskis were recognized by Israel (Yad Vashem) for their righteous acts and defiance against the Germans. The Żabińskis rebuilt the Warsaw Zoo, which remains open to this day.
- Jessica Chastain as Antonina Żabińska
- Johan Heldenbergh as Jan Żabiński
- Daniel Brühl as Lutz Heck
- Michael McElhatton as Jerzyk
- Iddo Goldberg as Maurycy Fraenkel
- Efrat Dor as Magda Gross
- Shira Haas as Urszula
- Val Maloku as Ryszard Żabiński
- Timothy Radford as Young Ryszard Żabiński
- Martha Issová as Regina Kenigswein
- Goran Kostić as Mr. Kinszerbaum
- Arnošt Goldflam as Janusz Korczak
The Zookeeper's Wife is based on Diane Ackerman's non-fiction book of the same name, which relied heavily on the diaries of Antonina Żabińska, published in Poland as Ludzie i zwierzęta (translated as: People and Animals) (1968). In key aspects of historical context, the screenplay follows the story of Antonina and her husband, Jan, closely. Both worked at the Warsaw Zoo. Antonina helped her husband who was the director of the zoo. Animals were part of their family's life, and the devastation that resulted from the attack on Warsaw and the subsequent pillaging of the zoo is well documented. The actions of Lutz Heck and his animal breeding experiments were also a matter of historical record, although the intimate relationship of the protagonist, Antonina and the antagonist, Heck, is exaggerated. However, the defiance of Nazi occupation and ultimately, the rescue of over 300 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were depicted accurately. The contributions and participation of the Żabinski children, Ryszard and Teresa (credited as Theresa in the film) were also notable.
In September 2010, it was announced that Angela Workman was adapting Diane Ackerman's non-fiction book, The Zookeeper's Wife. On April 30, 2013, Jessica Chastain was attached to play the titular role as Antonina Żabińska, while Niki Caro signed on to direct the film. On August 24, 2015, Focus Features acquired the US rights to the film, and Daniel Brühl and Johan Heldenbergh signed on to star in it.
Filming began with the animals on September 9, 2015, and principal photography with the actors began on September 29, 2015, in Prague, Czech Republic. Suzie Davies served as the production designer, Andrij Parekh as the director of photography, and Bina Daigeler as the costume designer. Filming ended on November 29, 2015.
The Zookeeper's Wife had its world premiere on March 8, 2017 in Warsaw, Poland, and its US premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival on March 12, 2017. The film was released in the United States on March 31, 2017 and was released in the United Kingdom on April 21, 2017. It premiered in Spain at the Barcelona-Sant Jordi International Film Festival on April 22, 2017. It also premiered in France at the 43rd Deauville Film Festival on September 7, 2017.
A special screening was held at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC on March 22, 2017, with a panel discussion including speakers Diane Ackerman, Jessica Chastain, Niki Caro and Angela Workman. Prior to the film's release, Focus Features partnered with the International Rescue Committee to screen the film in cities across the country, including a special screening at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California, and a special screening in New York City, with a panel of speakers which included Chastain, Caro and Workman. The New York screening occurred on behalf of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, and was hosted by activist Steven Goldstein. The film speakers were joined by Sarah O'Hagan of the International Rescue Committee. The evening's topic of discussion was the rescue of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, and the current refugee crisis in Europe.
The film began running on HBO on December 23, 2017.
The Zookeeper's Wife grossed $17.6 million in the United States and Canada and $8.6 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $26.1 million, against a production budget of $20 million.
In North America, the film grossed $3.3 million in its opening weekend from 541 theaters (a per-theater average of $6,191), finishing 10th at the box office. It remained the top grossing indie film in its second, third and fourth weeks of release.
The film remained the top grossing specialty film of 2017 in its fifth week of release, with IndieWire praising the film's release strategy, saying: "Focus’ aggressive push for this Jessica Chastain Holocaust rescue story has paid off with the top result for any specialized audience release since awards season. It won’t hit the level of Woman in Gold two years ago ($33 million), but that’s more of a factor of the steep decline in overall upscale grosses and more competition at the moment than other differences between the two films." In its eighth and ninth weeks of release, The Zookeeper's Wife was the third highest grossing specialty release of 2017, despite a reduction in its theater count. In its tenth week of release, IndieWire said the film "has been a rare specialized standout this spring."
The film remained the top-selling war film for the first three months of its home media release.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 63% based on 175 reviews. The website's critical consensus reads, "The Zookeeper's Wife has noble intentions, but is ultimately unable to bring its fact-based story to life with quite as much impact as it deserves." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 57 out of 100, based on 36 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". PostTrak reported that over 90% of audience members gave the film a rating of either "excellent" or "very good".
IndieWire listed The Zookeeper's Wife on its shortlist of best indie films of the year, stating: "Niki Caro’s fact-based historical drama is a heartbreaker of the highest order, anchored by an understated performance by Jessica Chastain and a series of wrenching dramatic twists that will wring tears out of even the hardest of hearts." Mick LaSalle, writing for The San Francisco Chronicle, gave the film a 5-star review, saying that it "grabs us from its first seconds" and that:
The Zookeeper's Wife achieves its grandeur not through the depiction of grand movements, but through its attentiveness to the shifts and flickers of the soul. The war was a great external event, but Caro reminds us that it was experienced internally, by the people and the animals who had to try to live through it.
Kenneth Turan, in the Los Angeles Times, says "Niki Caro and Jessica Chastain create an emotionally satisfying Zookeeper's Wife". The AP, the national wire service, says the film "tells a riveting true story" that is "both inspiring and comes as a welcome reminder in this time of uncertainty that even in the face of astonishing evil, humanity and goodness can also rise to the occasion." Jacob Soll in The New Republic heralded the film as the "first feminist Holocaust film".
In a negative review, Variety's Peter Debruge said, "There’s no nice way to put it in this case, but The Zookeeper’s Wife has the unfortunate failing of rendering its human drama less interesting than what happens to the animals — and for a subject as damaging to our species as the Holocaust, that no small shortcoming." In contrast, Variety's Kristopher Tapley wrote that the film deserved consideration as an Oscar contender.
Polish reviewers expressed a strong positive response to the film, as it spoke to their history. The Krakow Post stated: "On a universal level (the film) is a prayer for sanity and the civilized values of charity, empathy, and humanity in any time which finds itself threatened to be ruled by mass insanity, hatred, and barbarism. Lessons derived from this darkest period of recent history can never be untimely."
Alexandra Macaaron, in Women's Voices For Change, gave the film a rave review, noting that The Zookeeper's Wife is a rarity among Holocaust films, and is distinguished by its female perspective on war and the struggle to protect every living soul, strangers and friends alike.
At the 2016 Heartland Film Festival, held each October in Indianapolis, Indiana, The Zookeeper's Wife was awarded the "Truly Moving Picture Award"; emblematic of the festival's goal to "inspire filmmakers and audiences through the transformative power of film."
The Zookeeper's Wife was awarded the Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2017 Seattle Jewish Film Festival.
In April 2017, Political Film Society USA nominated The Zookeeper's Wife for its PFS award, in the category "Human Rights".
|List of Accolades|
|Award / Film Festival||Category||Recipient(s)||Result|
|Heartland Film Festival 2017||Truly Moving Picture Award||Niki Caro||Won|
|Women Film Critics Circle 2017||The Invisible Woman Award||Jessica Chastain||Nominated|
|Women Film Critics Circle 2017||Best Woman Storyteller (Screenwriting Award)||Angela Workman||Nominated|
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