Nazis, zoo animals and a remarkable true and uplifting story of one woman’s courage and resistance in sheltering 300 Polish Jews during World War II combine for a powerful, riveting and emotionally devastating film The Zookeeper’s Wife, which chronicles yet another little-known aspect of that momentous time. As I say in my video review above, director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland USA, North Country) and screenwriter Angela Workman have crafted an inspiring and uniquely humane film that stays with you long after you leave the theater.

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Based on Diane Ackerman’s gut-wrenching and powerful book, The Zookeeper’s Wife stars Jessica Chastain in another superb performance as Antonina Zabinski. With her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) they ran the Warsaw Zoo, and during the Nazi invasion turned it into a haven to hide hundreds of Jews during the course of the war. Essentially they took the place of caged animals in escaping the wrath of the Germans, all thanks to the heroic efforts of the Zabinskis but particularly Antonina, who used all her wiles to save these people in dire circumstances.

The effort gets complicated when Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) arrives with the offer of sending some of the most prized animals to Germany, where they would take part in a breeding program to produce superior species. The relationship between the two becomes tense as he falls for her, and engages sexually while she complies in order to keep the Zabinskis’ secret intact. This is the least successful part of Workman’s script as it ventures from the core of the remarkable story and drifts into more conventional melodrama, but the main themes of the film cannot be ignored, and Caro is skillful in building suspense throughout as the Zabinskis’ elaborate operation also involves shepherding the stowaways through a collection of tunnels underneath the zoo.

Of course we have seen many stories of the Holocaust brought to the screen, and though this one never reaches the heights of Schindler’s List it has its own place of honor and that is largely due to the sheer will of Antonina and the unwavering heart and humanity she displays not only for the people but also her animals. The opening scene does just that in showing how she brings a baby elephant to life, and subsequent scenes after the bombing of the zoo sending these creatures running frantically through town are actually heartbreaking to watch. In fact, some of this film — particularly the first 30 minutes — is so vivid and real it may be difficult to watch for those sensitive to scenes showing animals in peril or dying. This is one of the few films I have seen that unflinchingly shows the toll on animals during World War II, but it also is one that has a deep love for all living things and their fight to survive.

Chastain nails her accent and never loses touch with the dedicated mission of this brave woman. Heldenbergh doesn’t have nearly as much to do as you can probably guess from the film’s title, but the actor still rises to the occasion. Bruhl successfully avoids creating a Nazi stereotype with the intriguing Heck, but the script doesn’t always help; he is such a good actor he overcomes any temptation to fall into more familiar territory we have seen in countless portrayals of Germans during the war. A big shout-out too to the animal trainers who have done a magnificent job with virtually every kind of creature from monkeys to llamas to lions to adorable bunnies.

Producers are Jamie Patricof, Diane Miller Levin, Jeff Abberley and Kim Zubick. Focus Features releases the film March 31.

Do you plan to see The Zookeeper’s Wife? Let us know what you think.