Focus Features’ The Zookeeper’s Wife is an adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book (same title) which recounts the harrowing story of Dr. Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina in German-occupied Poland. The Zabinski’s saved three hundred Jews from extermination by the Nazi’s, smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto two by two.
More than a historical Holocaust film, The Zookeeper’s Wife harkens back to ancient events: Creation, Fall, Flood, and Exodus. It is the story of God’s people redeemed by the power of sacrificial love, a power so great even the gates of hell have to open.
The movie opens on a beautiful summer morning with Antonina lying in bed with her family, her son Ryszard and two lion cubs. She is "Eve in the Garden" as her husband Jan calls her after saving the life of the baby elephant. Thus the time (summer) and place (zoological garden) look back to Eden before the Fall.
Jan and Antonina are types of Adam and Eve, exercising benevolent dominion over the animal kingdom; humanity’s original Genesis vocation. As she rides her bicycle around the garden accompanied by Adam the camel, she greets each one of her beloved charges. There is no sign of the destruction soon to come; only in the evening as they entertain the director of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck, is there a hint of the serpent’s presence.
September 1, 1939 the Nazi’s invade Poland and the bombs start falling on the Warsaw Zoo. Thesescenes are brutal and shocking; chaos erupts and the terrified animals are blown up, shot, or on the run. They presage what will soon happen to the humans as the Nazi war machine takes over.
Lutz Heck arrives at the zoo and confiscates the prize stock to be taken to Berlin, while liquidating what he deems to be less than prize stock. He is Hitler’s zoologist and has inherited the sick, twisted, thinking of the Fuhrer.
These scenes depict the horror and depravity of the Fall of Mankind and the reign of Death in ways words cannot convey. The bondage that fell on all of creation and the destruction brought to the animal kingdom is felt in palpable ways.
There is one ray of light, one glimmer of hope in all the darkness; the sacrificial love of Jan and Antonina for their friends Mauryey and Magda. The Zabinski’s decide to risk everything in order to save one. This is the first step in making the zoo a "human zoo", a way station, an Ark, which will carry a remnant through the dark waters of chaos and from death to life in a new creation.
The Zabinski’s turn the zoo into a pig farm knowing the occupying Germans will need to procure meat. It is a perfect cover which allows them to go into the ghetto to get the left over slops and smuggle people out underneath the stinking garbage.
Urszula, a young rape victim, is one of the first to be rescued by Jan and his son. She is the one who creates the mural on the wall of the zoo which tells the story of the escaping Jews. Each person is represented by a different animal, and together they are following the stars of David leading them like a "pillar of fire by night" on a real exodus journey.
The snow of this long winter is ash; ashes falling from the burning of the ghetto. For the remnant hidden and huddled in the zoo it is Passover, and they are able to celebrate and commemorate it with a Seder.
In the climatic days of the war, the German’s staggering like a slain dragon viciously attack, Jan Sabinski is wounded and captured in battle. Antonina and the children narrowly escape the wrath of Lutz Heck; homeless, husbandless, and fatherless they leave the garden.
The movie ends with a return and a reunion. Antonina, the children, Urszula, Mauryey, Magda, and longtime zookeeper, Jerzyk, have all returned to begin again at the zoo. Antonina is setting an outside table for a meal when Jan appears out of nowhere; a miraculous life raised from the Nazi death camp.
Now a new family, Jew and Gentile together, has been formed out of the chaos of war; one body to begin again in the garden.