Friday, March 31, 2017

Zookeeper's Wife [2017]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB () (2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (E. Zuckerman) review

Zookeeper's Wife [2017] (directed by Niki Caro, screenplay by Angela Workman based on the book [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Diane Ackerman [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) tells the story of Antonina Żabiński and her husband Jan [wikip] (played by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh respectively) a Polish married couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s and used the premises to successfully hide some 300 Jews (some for days, others for years) during the time of Nazi Occupation (only two of the 300 Jews hidden by them were subsequently captured and killed, the rest survived the War).  For their efforts, the Żabińskis are among the 6,706 Poles (more than any other country) honored among "The Righteous Among the Nations" at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial [wikip] [website] in Jerusalem. 

To my knowledge, this may be the first Hollywood feature film to honor a Polish family that helped save Jews during the Holocaust even though, as mentioned above, the number of Poles honored at Yad Vashem exceeds all other nations, and as Poles would remind anybody who'd only listen to them, they themselves were suffered tremendously during the Nazi Occupation, and by Nazi ideology were themselves (along with the rest of the Slavic peoples) consigned do be "a slave race" for the Nazis to use as utterly expendable manual labor in the most dangerous of tasks.  As such, I can not but applaud this film that recognizes the some of the sufferings and contributions of the Poles during the brutal era of their country's occupation.

The film, like the book on which it is based, combines the story of the Żabińskis (among the source material used by Diane Ackerman in writing her book was Antonina Żabiński's own diary from the time) with other actual events of the time.  Notably, the film features an interplay (perhaps partly true, though also certainly embellished) between the Żabińskis and Lutz Heck [en.wikip] [de.wikip]*(played in the film by Daniel Brühl) who had been the head of Berlin's Zoo during the Nazi Era and was most famous for a rather bizarre Nazi-era "breeding program" for recreating an extinct species of "Ur-ox."  Of course he did not succeed, but the resulting large and _rather aggressive_ cattle have been subsequently labeled Heck cattle (or more amusingly / derisively "Nazi Cows"). 

In the film, Lutz is shown performing some of these bizarre breeding experiments on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo (largely empty of its original animals as most were killed and others were pillaged by the Nazi occupiers / taken to zoos back in the Reich) while the Żabińskis the former caretakers of the Zoo, still living in the villa on its grounds, used the zoo's various empty pens, tunnels and other facilities to hide Jews, literally under the noses of Lutz and the other Nazi occupiers.  

It makes for an interesting (and largely family friendly) story about how the resourcefulness of a Polish family helped hide and save literally hundreds of Jewish lives in the midst of literally one of the most dangerous places to be during the Holocaust.

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