The Zookeeper's Wife

The Zookeeper's Wife Information

The Zookeeper's Wife is a 2017 war drama film directed by Niki Caro and written by Angela Workman, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, recounting the rescue of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. The film stars Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton and Daniel Brhl.

The Zookeeper's Wife had its world premiere on March 8, 2017, in Warsaw, Poland, the location of the story, followed by screening at the Cinequest Film Festival on March 12, 2017, and was released in the United States on March 31, 2017 by Focus Features.


Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan ?abi?ski (Johan Heldenbergh) are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, one of the largest and most prolific zoos in 1930s Europe. In the calm of September 1939, Antonina, opens the gates of Miejski Ogrd Zoologiczny as a crowd has already gathered to view the many species on display in the zoo. Her husband Jan has only recently been appointed the director of the Warsaw Zoo and faces the scornful, yet envious advances of Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brhl), the head of the Berlin Zoo as "Hitler"?s zoologist"?.

On September 1, 1939, Antonina and her son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and later, Val Maloku) are shocked witnesses to the aerial bombardment of Warsaw as German forces storm Poland. The Zoo is not to be spared and bombs raze the cages and kill many of the animals. As Polish resistance collapses under overwhelming odds, Dr. Heck arrives at the zoo, beseeching Antonia to let him save the "prize"? specimens, which she reluctantly grants, but then learns that his motives are suspect. With the onset of winter, Heck again appears, this time, to slaughter all the remaining caged animals, which he declares is an act of kindness as they would surely die in the cold. Heck, however, takes a certain delight in shooting an eagle himself, then casually telling an aide to have it stuffed.

Warsaw becomes the scene of a monstrous upheaval with Jews first identified and their stores and shops looted. Wearing the dreaded Star of David armbands, two of the Zabrinski"?s friends, Maurycy Franekel (Iddo Goldberg) and his wife Magda (Efrat Dor) seek a haven not for themselves, but for an insect collection that was Franekel"?s life"?s work. Antonina makes an unusual offer to shelter Magda in an attic closet. Jan and his wife take stock of what defiance of the Nazis would mean, but come to the realization that they can save one life.

With the zoo to be closed permanently, Jan and Antonia seek out Heck who has now set up headquarters in Warsaw for his groundbreaking research in animal breeding. The Zabrinskis make a daring proposal to turn the remaining structures into a pig farm to ultimately provide food for the occupying forces. Intrigued, Heck is also looking for a home for his diabolical experiments on recreating ancient beasts.

The Zabrinskis devise an elaborate plan to spirit away Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, even as it is being devastated by a relentless, murderous Nazi juggernaut. Snatching children and adults from the ghetto, over 300 "guests"? inhabit the Zabrinski"?s home on their way to freedom, with new identification papers and sometimes, even a wig and a makeover to fool the Nazis.


  • Jessica Chastain as Antonina ?abi?ska
  • Johan Heldenbergh as Jan ?abi?ski
  • Daniel Brhl as Lutz Heck
  • Michael McElhatton as Jerzyk
  • Iddo Goldberg as Maurycy Fraenkel
  • Shira Haas as Urszula
  • Efrat Dor as Magda Gross
  • Val Maloku as Ryszard ?abi?ski
  • Tim Radford as Young Ryszard ?abi?ski
  • Goran Kosti? as Mr. Kinszerbaum

Historical context

The Zookeeper's Wife was based on not only Diane Ackerman's non-fiction book The Zookeeper's Wife but also relied heavily on the author's use of the diaries of Antonina ?abi?ska, published in Poland as Ludzie i zwierz?ta (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, although as shown in the film, Antonina was an assistant to her husband who was the director or "Zookeeper". Animals were part of their family's life, and the devastation that resulted from not only the attack on Warsaw and the subsequent pillaging of the zoo is well documented. The actions of Lutz Heck and his diabolical animal breeding experiments were also a matter of historical record, although the intimate relationship of the two protagonists, Antonina and Heck, were exaggerated. Where it was acute was that the facts behind 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 Zabrinski children, Ryszard and Teresa (credited as Theresa in the film) were also notable.


In September 2010, it was announced that Angela Workman was adapting the Ackerman non-fiction book The Zookeeper's Wife. On April 30, 2013, Jessica Chastain was attached to play the titular role as Antonina ?abi?ska in the film, while Niki Caro signed on to direct the film. On August 24, 2015, Focus Features acquired the US rights to the film, and Daniel Brhl and Johan Heldenbergh signed on to star in the film.


Filming began on the animals to be used in The Zookeeper's Wife on September 9, 2015, but the actual principal photography with actors began on September 29, 2015, in Prague, Czech Republic.

Suzie Davies would serve as the production designer on The Zookeeper's Wife, 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 at the Cinequest Film Festival on March 12, 2017. The film was released in the United States on March 31, 2017 and will be in the United Kingdom on April 28.

Critical reception

Peter Debruge of Variety noted that the story had a dispassionate feel, writing: "This powerful story of a woman who hid Jewish refugees in her husband's zoo curiously leaves us caring more about the animals than its human souls." Peter Holden's review for The New York Times was more severe in his criticism, calling the film:"Schindler"?s List with pets" and saying, "this mild-mannered Holocaust film probably wasn"?t conceived as family fare but is so timid and sanitized it almost feels safe for children."

On Rotten Tomatoes, The Zookeeper's Wife has an approval rating of 58% based on 89 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2/10. The site'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 score of 58 out of 100, based on 31 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".

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