The Zookeeper’s Wife— A Tale for our Time

Jewish graveyards with headstones turned over. Jewish Community Centers with bomb threats throughout the land. Poland in 1939? No, America in 2017. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and the perfect movie to comment on the hideous sin that is anti-Semitism is the Zookeeper’s Wife, a true story about the hiding of Jews underneath the Warsaw Zoo during WWII by the zookeeper, and his wife Antonia. Some have compared this movie to Schindler’s List, but the actual better comparison would be with Corrie Ten Boom’s classic The Hiding Place. Apart from Jessica Chastain, and perhaps Daniel Bruhl who plays Herr Heck the zoo supervisor you will probably not recognize the actors and actresses, but no matter. This is superbly done. This movie develops at a slow and deliberate pace (2 hours and six minutes in total), with nothing wasted, nothing overdone, building to a surprise climax (no spoiler alert needed).

There is of course a dimension to this movie that is not present in either the Hiding Place or Schindler’s List, or for that matter the Book Thief, namely the role that animals, beautiful animals, hilarious animals, comforting animals play in the film. There is one especially effective scene in which Antonia is holding a cute little bunny and she is contrasting humans with such animals, and she says ‘But when you look directly into the eyes of an animal, you know exactly what is in their hearts’. With animals, what you see, is what you get. That’s exactly right. It is partly why animals are easy to love– there is no deception, no dissembling, no falseness. When they trust you, you know it. Antonia’s love for and relationship with the animals is beautifully portrayed, and it immediately makes her a sympathetic character in the drama.

The arc of the story is in fact long, it begins in 1939 and continues until the end of the war, and even beyond. It is not just the story of the Warsaw Zoo, it is also the story of the rescuing of Jews, the burning of the Warsaw ghetto, the love of a husband and wife, the brutality of war and racism, and much more. It is also beautifully filmed. In our present climate of fear-based thinking, and increasing xenophobia and just racism, this movie is a good tonic, and reminds us that sometimes human beings really do listen to and follow the better angels of their natures, or better said, the voice of God reminding them what is right, and what is profoundly wrong.

While there is some violence in the film, and some brief nudity, this is a movie Christians ought to see, and I would say families with adult children (not small children) should all go together and then have a conversation about the substance and message of the film. What should Christians do when they see racism and violence raise its ugly head and effect one’s neighbors? Should they ignore the situation, become self-protective, or say to themselves, in the words of John Donne– ‘any man’s death diminishes me, for I am a part of mankind. Therefore, do not ask for whom the bell tolls….’

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