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Movie Review

The Zookeeper's Wife

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking.

Reviewed by: Jonathan Rodriguez

Better than Average
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Teens Adults
Biography War History Drama Adaptation
2 hr. 4 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
March 31, 2017 (wide—541 theaters)
April 7, 2017 (expanded—804 theaters)
April 14, 2017 (expanded—1,057 theaters)
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Relevant Issues
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true love is action, not an emotion


goodness and righteousness

courage / bravery

FEAR, Anxiety and Worry—What does the Bible say? Answer

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fall of man to sin and a depraved mind

battle between evil and good

Why does Satan want to destroy the descendants of Abraham?

ORIGIN OF BAD—How did bad things come about? Answer

Did God make the world the way it is now? What kind of world would you create? Answer

How do I know what is right from wrong? Answer

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The Holocaust during WWII

Issue of pain and suffering

Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer

What about the issue of suffering? Doesn’t this prove that there is no God and that we are on our own? Answer

Does God feel our pain? Answer

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animals in the Bible

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Featuring: Jessica ChastainAntonina Zabinski
Johan Heldenbergh … Jan Zabinski
Daniel Brühl … Lutz Heck
Timothy Radford … Ryszard Zabinski (Younger)
Efrat Dor … Magda Gross
Iddo Goldberg … Maurycy Fraenkel
Shira Haas … Urszula
Michael McElhatton … Jerzyk
Val Maloku … Ryszard Zabinski (Older)
Martha Issová … Regina Kenigswein
Daniel Ratimorský … Samuel Kenigswein
Frederick Preston … Miecio Kenigswein
Theo Preston … Stanislav Kenigswein
Viktoria Zakharyanova … Stefania Keningswein
more »
Director: Niki Caro—“Whale Rider” (2002)
Producer: Scion Films
Czech Anglo Productions
more »
Distributor: Focus Features

“They gave all they had to save all they could”

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” tells the incredible true story of Antonina Zabinski (portrayed by two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain), who, along with her husband Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh), helped save the lives of hundreds of Jewish people during the German invasion of Warsaw during WWII. Antonina lives and works at the Warsaw Zoo with her zoologist husband, and we first meet her (and many of her animal friends) in a beautiful opening sequence as she bicycles through the zoo wishing good morning to every creature she sees.

At a zoologist party the Zabinski’s host in an early scene of the film, the party guests comment (with various degrees of jealousy) of the magical gift Antonina seems to possess when it comes to the animals. This scene is interrupted by a medical emergency on the zoo grounds involving a newborn elephant, and Antonina’s gift is on full display as she comes to the baby pachyderm’s rescue. This catches the eye of Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the head zoologist of the Berlin Zoo, who seems to sense some kind of connection with Antonina, despite the very obvious devotion she has for her husband.

The party is also where we first begin to sense the simmering tension felt by the people of Warsaw regarding Hitler and the German advancement in Europe. One guests jokes (with little humor in his voice) that they will all be speaking German by the end of the year. Not long after, the German invasion begins with an aerial bombing of the city and soon the occupation is in full swing as the Jewish citizens of Warsaw are rounded up and forced to live in the ghetto with little food and nothing to provide them with warmth.

The German soldiers set up day camp at the zoo, led by the recently promoted Lutz Heck, who uses any opportunity he can to be near Antonina. Despite the close proximity of the Nazi occupiers, Antonina and Jan devise a plan to turn their zoo into a pig farm to provide food for the soldiers and suggest driving into the ghetto to collect trash to use as feed for the pigs. This plan delights Heck, and Jan begins traveling back and forth from the ghetto smuggling a few Jewish people each trip. As the trips become more harrowing for Jan, Antonina also begins to have increasing difficulty keeping her “human zoo” from the ever-watchful and invasive eye of Heck.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a difficult film to rate in terms of moral quality. It contains only one profanity (“Oh my G*d”) and no other foul language or suggestive humor of any kind, which alone is a monumental feat in movies these days. There is split-second female nudity in one of the opening scenes while the Zabinski’s are talking, and later in the movie we see them passionately kissing in bed with the implication that it leads to sex, though nothing is seen. There is gun violence in the film (towards humans and animals), with a few startling moments that may disturb some viewers.

But it’s the very dark implied violence in the film that may give parents pause when deciding whether this film is appropriate for their teens. As Jan is driving his truck through the ghetto, he sees a teenage girl being accosted by two German soldiers who then force her into a dark alley. The next time we see the girl, she is stumbling out of the alley, blood running down her legs. The rape takes place off-screen, but the aftermath is presented as a brutal reminder of some of the things the people in the ghettos actually experienced. Later in the film, a person is forced into bed where it appears another rape will occur, but the victim manages to prevent it.

And, of course, just outside of view to us lie the atrocities of the Holocaust. While none of them happen on-screen, it’s impossible not to watch a movie like this without them coming to mind. In one heartbreaking scene, Jan is forced to help Jewish children onto the trains we know will lead them to their deaths, and yet they walk up to him and stretch out their arms to be picked up like kids wanting a piggy-back ride.

The film is rated PG-13, and that seems just about right. I am giving the film a “better than average” moral rating, because I think this film could be a great tool to use to begin a conversation with middle-school and early high-school students about the horrors of the Holocaust without immediately exposing them to all the horrors of, say, “Schindler’s List.” But, of course, parents should prayerfully consider whether this movie is right for their children.

Nonetheless, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is less about the horrors of the war as it is about the extraordinary courage of two amazing people. The film walks a very delicate line in telling the story, focusing more on the good done by the Zabinski’s than on the evils done by the Nazi regime, while at the same time being unapologetic when it does shockingly remind us of the evil that was occurring. A scene of Antonina walking in ethereal slow-motion on her balcony through what looks like snow is starkly juxtaposed with a scene of the German soldiers torching the Jewish ghetto in the dark of night. This film plays that contrast well, but part of me wished it had done so more often. Not once in the film did I sense the main characters in any real danger, as odd as that sounds. Clearly, their actual story was fraught with tremendous danger, but “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is told in a safer way.

Having not read the book by Diane Ackerman on which the movie is based, I can’t say whether or not this plays more in the direction of the source material, but I imagine the book focused a bit more heavily on the very real dangers faced by Antonina and Jan. Having said that, I was not in any way disappointed with the movie. The performances are all very good, but Jessica Chastain is the center around which they all gravitate, and she is, as always, outstanding. The film is directed by Niki Caro, who previously directed one of my favorite movies of the 2000s, “Whale Rider.” The scenes involving the animals (in particular the scene where the zoo is bombed and the animals run for their lives” are tremendously shot and quite an impressive feat to behold.

John 15:13 says “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Movies like “The Zookeeper’s Wife” remind us just how real and true that verse is. Throughout history, and especially during WWII, people sacrificed everything to protect those less fortunate who were being persecuted because of race or religion. Some people risked their lives, and others gave up their lives completely. My favorite verse in the Bible, 1 John 4:10, says,

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

The ultimate sacrifice in the face of unspeakable evil was made by Christ for us on the cross when He took our sins. He set the bar for true love, the greatest love, and then reminded us that sacrificing for others is the greatest way we can show that love in return. “The Zookeepers” Wife” serves as a great reminder of what that kind of love looks like.

Violence: Very Heavy—zoo attacked by German bombers, dead animals, animals shot by Nazis, war scenes, implied rape (not graphic), violence against Jews by Nazis / Profanity: Minor—OMG (1) / Sex/Nudity: Moderate to heavy—husband/wife kiss, cleavage, married couple in bed (brief female breast and bare back), implied married sex, beginning of sexual advance by Nazi on a vulnerable married woman, but he breaks it off before anything too serious happens

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Positive—I love to watch films based on true stories, and this one does not disappoint. Good script, good acting. I realize there are those who struggle with life, but in civilized countries today there is relative freedom and prosperity.

After watching a film like this, how can anyone complain about their lives? We have it made today! Yet, there are millions of people, especially our youth, who don’t realize what they have. Don’t they understand that WWII was less than a hundred years ago? Don’t they understand how precious freedom is? Don’t they see how good people like the Zookeeper and his wife took the enormous personal risk to hide Jews from the Nazis, and in doing so exhibited the best of Christian values?

Parents, please take your kids to see this movie. It’s more than just another story—it is real life.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Leonardo, age 75 (USA)
Neutral—The reason I say no is because I couldn’t hear a word that was said. I had a head set and still couldn’t make out what was said. My husband went out and got a head set, and he couldn’t make out what they were saying. We had to watch and figure our what was going on by the actions. The wife’s voice was very low. She certainly said a lot but what did she say? I believe movies should have close caption. Because we couldn’t make out what they were saying I consider that we didn’t get the whole movie. more »
My Ratings: Moral rating: / Moviemaking quality: 1½
—Frances A. Chamberlain and Polish, age 76 (USA)

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