In my April 4th talkback on Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, the audience and I considered the film’s use of history to comment on the present. Just as significant, however, was the film’s sustained animal motif in its commentary on the Holocaust. The film tells the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who operate a Warsaw zoo that was seized by the Nazis. Since their most prized animals are taken away to a Berlin zoo and the others shot, the Zabinskis repurpose the zoo as a pig farm. That farm serves as a front to appease the Nazis occupying the space. This allows the Zabinskis to hide Jewish citizens in basement cells until they can be given forged documents and moved to a safe location.
Seeing these characters occupy spaces intended for animals can be jarring, as the comparison of people to animals has long been a practice to dehumanize groups deemed “undesirable” by a powerful oppressor. In the case of the Holocaust, Nazis would compare Jewish peoples to rats as a way to justify what they saw as an extermination. What is fascinating about The Zookeeper’s Wife is that the film offers a human-animal comparison not to denigrate people, but to elevate our perception of animals and reassert the dignity of the Jewish people under systematic attack by the Nazis.
The film’s comparisons are established early in key scenes featuring the protagonist, Antonina, and the antagonist, Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck. When we are introduced to Heck, he boasts about shooting a wild animal and then taking her cubs for his Berlin zoo. Shortly afterward, Antonina is called upon to save a baby elephant that isn’t breathing, even if that means risking her life as the mother elephant sees her as a threat to her baby. Caro makes the point unmistakably: people that disregard the fundamental worth of animals are on a continuum with those people who would judge whole ethnic groups as unworthy of life.
This motif is reinforced in the depiction of Heck’s “selective breeding” program for animals. Not only does he want to produce better versions of cows and horses; he desires, fruitlessly, to recreate species that have been long extinct. Even in the moments when he deems animals important, his motives match the Nazi rhetoric of the so-called “master race.”
Heck’s foolish pursuit of animal purity is complemented by his sadistic destruction of animals deemed unworthy of preservation. To the horror of Antonina and the zoo workers, camels, eagles, and others are shot in the street. Heck’s pretense of civility withers away in these moments of cold cruelty.
It is this calculated sadism displayed by Heck that the film contrasts with the warmth of the animals and those that love them. In an especially moving exchange between Antonina and a traumatized Jewish girl named Urszula, the zookeeper’s wife explains to the refugee her philosophy on animals. She argues that it’s difficult to truly know what people are thinking, but when you look in animal’s eyes, “you know what’s in their heart.” As she shares this perspective, she cradles a small bunny that she gives to Urszula as a present.
An audience member at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema found this act of kindness truly resonant. She had a friend who worked with children suffering from trauma and knew the effectiveness of letting these kids interact with animals as a way to ease their pain. The film revealed the therapeutic value of Antonina’s gesture as Urszula gradually found the ability to speak again, to other children and then to Antonina herself.
When Urszula reveals her name to Antonina, her host points out that the name means “she-bear.” The brief conversation perfectly encapsulates the film’s philosophy on the value of animals and the fundamental worth of human life. Even though Urszula’s name signifies her connection with animals, it does not diminish her worth. Instead, her name associates her with the strength of a bear, a strength to which she can aspire. She reclaims her name as well as her speech in a time when Jewish people are reduced to numbers and silenced. She sits cradling the rabbit, surviving a regime that would see them both as rodents fit only for extermination. The Zookeeper’s Wife invites us to reject that pernicious Nazi ideology and see our love for animals on a continuum with our love for humanity.