As the Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities continues its Lloyd M. Burstein Memorial Holocaust Film Series at the Figge, there’s another Holocaust film you’ll want to consider in its national theater release.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on the non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman, is a poignant tale of survival that happened at the Warsaw Zoo in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland and on through the early 1940s.
We first see the beautiful zoo in 1939 when Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) helps her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh, television’s “The Tunnel”) with the animals. The animals respond to her seemingly magical touch – later on, she resuscitates a newborn elephant that can’t breathe.
When the city is bombed, German aircraft terrify the animals, many of whom are killed and others who end up wandering through the streets. Even more die when Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, “The Fifth Estate,”) the head zoologist in Berlin, slaughters the helpless animals ostensibly so they won’t starve. He then takes some of the “prize specimens” to be bred.
The residents are as hapless as the animals as Jews are rounded up and sent into a ghetto or to concentration camps. By late 1940, Jews are forced to wear armbands and face life-threatening situations at every turn. Antonina and Jan at first offer their friends a safe house.
Later, Antonia and Jan decide to offer the Nazis some food: They can turn the zoo, which still houses a few other animals, into a hog farm, providing the German soldiers with pork and feeding the pigs the garbage from the ghetto.
When Jan drives his truck into the ghetto, he hides Jews under the garbage and transports them to safety at the zoo, where they remain secure until they can obtain forged papers from Resistance workers.
Heck has eyes for Antonia, who realizes she must keep him interested and distracted from the hideout she and Jan have created. Antonina, who plays the piano, works out a kind of “alarm system” for her hidden guests so they will know when German patrols are nearby.
Meanwhile, as Heck begins to take more and more liberties with Antonina, her marriage to Jan begins to strain.
Cages, cold-blooded killing and cruelty are meted out to both the animals and to people as the script continues to show the parallels of the beasts compared to the Jewish refugees.
Although this has a “PG-13” rating, it’s not for the faint of heart: The scenes of animals being slaughtered and humans being tormented and killed are not easy to watch.
It’s a part of history that deserves to be remembered.