Story

The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on the true story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) Zabinski, the owners of the Warsaw Zoo, who helped save hundreds of people from the death camps of World War II.

Antonina and Jan are friends with Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a German zoologist and director of the Berlin Zoo. Lutz is obviously attracted to Antonina, which becomes important later in the story. When war breaks out, the Warsaw Zoo is badly bombed and many of the animals die. Lutz, now a member of the SS, offers to take the prize stock back to Berlin, where he thinks it will be safer.

Meanwhile all the Jews in Warsaw are being rounded up and placed in the Warsaw ghetto. The Zabinskis have Jewish friends, Magda (Efrat Dor) and Iddo (Maurycy Fraenkel), and agree to hide Magda in the basement of their home when Iddo is sent to the ghetto. Jan devises a plan to farm pigs, which Lutz permits. Jan is allowed to enter the ghetto to collect food waste to feed the pigs. This is a ruse to bring out the children, hiding them underneath all the rubbish. As the war progresses, the Zabinskis manage to bring out adults as well as children, including their old friend Iddo.

Jan eventually joins the resistance fighters, leaving Antonina and their son Ryzard (Timothy Radford and Val Maloku) to manage on their own. Antonina takes advantage of Lutz’s affections to continue helping people to escape from the ghetto right under the Germans’ noses.

Themes

World War II; Death of animals and people; Survival, Resistance.

Violence

The Zookeeper’s Wife has some violence. For example:

  • Planes fly low over the zoo and drop bombs. The explosions terrify and kill the animals. The scene shows many dead animals.
  • Soldiers shoot some of the animals, including an elephant that has just given birth.
  • Soldiers smash shop windows and arrest shopkeepers.
  • Two soldiers grab a young girl, about 13 years old, by the hair and drag her into a building. A later scene shows her badly injured, covered in blood, wearing torn clothes and obviously traumatised.
  • Two women, whom the Zabinskis helped escape, are discovered living in the city. They are taken out of their house and shot.
  • The ghetto is evacuated. Soldiers march people out and load them onto train carriages. The soldiers are rough with the people and have muzzled German Shepherd dogs with them to keep the people in order. The ghetto is burned down while people are still in it.
  • There’s a gun battle between the German army and Polish resistance. Many men are shot, including Jan Zabinski.
  • Antonina goes to Lutz begging to know Jan’s whereabouts. Lutz starts to kiss Antonina, but she tells him she detests him. He starts to pull her clothes off and drags her to a couch but changes his mind and walks away.
  • Lutz locks Antonina in a cage. He takes Ryzard into a barn, and there’s a gunshot. Lutz doesn’t actually shoot Ryzard, but it seems that he has shot him and Antonina is sobbing.

Content that may disturb children

Under 5
In addition to the violent scenes mentioned above, The Zookeeper’s Wife has some scenes that could scare or disturb children under five years. For example, the scenes with the dead animals would particularly upset young children.

From 5-8
In addition to the violent scenes and scary images mentioned above, The Zookeeper’s Wife has some scenes that could scare or disturb children in this age group. For example:

  • At the start of the movie, there’s a scene that shows Antonina’s close relationship with the animals in the zoo. She calls them all by name and hand-feeds them. In one scene, an elephant gives birth to a calf that appears dead. Antonina talks gently to the mother elephant and moves in to help the baby. She gently compresses the baby’s heart while the mother’s trunk is over her shoulder. The baby starts breathing. This is an intense scene, and it becomes even more upsetting in retrospect when German soldiers shoot these animals.
  • The zookeepers pick up the dead animals and cart them off in wheelbarrows.

From 8-13
In addition to the violent and scary scenes mentioned, The Zookeeper’s Wife has some scenes that could scare or disturb children in this age group. For example:

  • The scenes showing the death of the animals are very upsetting.
  • Children are hidden in large bins and covered in food waste.
  • Young children have difficulty getting onto the train and put their arms up for help. Jan reluctantly lifts them up onto the train.

Over 13
In addition to the violent and scary scenes mentioned, The Zookeeper’s Wife has some scenes that could scare or disturb children in this age group. For example:

  • The ghetto scenes are quite upsetting. People are starving and there are dead bodies on the street. Bodies are carted away.
  • A young girl who has been raped is extremely traumatised. Jan manages to get her out of the ghetto, but she won’t speak to anybody for a very long time.

Sexual references

The Zookeeper’s Wife has some sexual references. For example:

  • Two soldiers leer at a young girl, touch her hair and clothes, and take her off into a barn where she is obviously raped. The rape isn’t shown.
  • Lutz often gets very close to Antonina, brushing up against her, washing her arms and generally being over-familiar. Antonina goes along with this because she feels she has no choice.

Alcohol, drugs and other substances

The Zookeeper’s Wife shows some use of substances. For example, characters smoke and drink throughout.

Nudity and sexual activity

The Zookeeper’s Wife has some nudity and sexual activity. For example:

  • Jan and Antonina are shown in bed together, naked from the waist up.
  • Bison are shown mating as part of Lutz’s breeding program. Soldiers cheer them on.
  • Jan and Antonina kiss passionately and start undressing each other. Sex is implied but not shown.
  • It looks like Lutz is going to rape Antonina. He tears at her clothes and drags her forcefully onto a couch while she’s resisting. He has a change of heart at the last minute.

Product placement

No products are used or displayed in The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Coarse language

None of concern

Ideas to discuss with your children

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a drama based on the true story of heroic and brave people who helped others escape from the horrors of Nazi-occupied Warsaw. The story is very powerful and well told, but the movie is quite intense and covers very distressing material. It’s therefore not recommended for children under 15 years.

The main messages from this movie are about the importance of opposing evil and standing up for what you believe in, even at great cost to yourself.

Values in this movie that you could reinforce with your children include bravery, heroism, self-sacrifice, care for others, opposition to evil, humanitarianism and compassion.

This movie could also give you the chance to talk with your children about real-life issues like the consequences of segregating people along racial or religious lines.