Besides the inherent drama present in any story involving Nazis and Jewish people during World War II, the careful combination of whimsy and horror in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” – a sort of “We Bought A Zoo” meets “Schindler’s List” – makes it uniquely intriguing and compelling.

The film is based on the true story of Antonina Żabińska and Jan Żabiński, a Christian couple and zookeepers in Warsaw, Poland, as told in the international best-selling book by the same name, which drew heavily on the diary kept by Antonina before and during World War II. (In the interest of full transparency, I have not read the book, and so will only be commenting on the film.)

It opens on the cusp of the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939. The audience is only just acquainted with the charming zoo kept by the Żabińskis and their staff when German troops storm the city and bomb the zoo, violently killing many of the magnificent animals and scattering most of the rest of them.

Jessica Chastian as Antonina Żabińska in “The Zookeepers Wife.”

The Żabiński’s zoo is then taken over by the Germans, led by Lutz Heck, a previous acquaintance of the Żabińskis who claims to be an animal lover himself, as he owns a zoo back in Berlin. Attempts to appeal to his friendship in order to maintain some semblance of peace at the zoo work for a time, but eventually deteriorate throughout the film.

The Żabińskis’ frustration and horror at the new realities of Warsaw at war are obvious. At first, they agree to shelter one of their close Jewish friends in a closet in the upper level of their spacious villa on the zoo grounds, a dangerous undertaking in and of itself.   

However, as news of the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto spreads, the Żabińskis devise a plan. They turn their destroyed zoo into a pig farm, under the guise of raising meat for the troops. This allows Jan entrance into the Jewish ghetto to collect garbage, in which he hides numerous Jewish escapees and takes them to his zoo until they can find safehouses elsewhere.

While the Żabińskis were a Christian couple, the religion behind their compassion is not overtly obvious in the film, making the story more an exploration of what happens to good people who are unwittingly thrust into appallingly evil circumstances. 

At the end of the war, the Żabińskis were responsible for sheltering some 300 Jews – only two of whom were ever found and killed by the Germans. The couple was recognized in the 1960s by the State of Israel as the Polish Righteous Among the Nations for their heroic rescue of Jews during the Holocaust in occupied Poland.

While Heck’s zoo was destroyed at the end of the war, the Warsaw Zoo remains open to this day.

The films shines in its contrast of good and evil, and the heartbreaking realities of the Warsaw ghetto. Especially touching were the scenes showing how gentle and caring the Żabińskis were to their guests, staying up late into the night to socialize after the German guards had left, even after a tiring day of working to save more people. The animals also provide some much-needed though subtle levity and a calming presence in the midst of the chaos and horror.

Contemplating how good people should react in the face of unspeakable evil is especially poignant at this time, when millions of people are facing persecution and displacement throughout the Middle East at the hands of ISIS or as a result of the Syrian civil war.  

While a compelling story of good versus evil, the film is not friendly to the whole family for several reasons – mature themes including two scenes that imply rape, violence against people and animals, and brief, partial nudity.

The story is also not without some holes – it is never explained why the Jews in the ghetto so willingly accept the non-Kosher gifts of pig meat from Jan. While it may have been allowed to break Kosher because they were starving, it’s a bit strange that it’s never mentioned. How the Żabińskis became involved in the Polish Resistance and were connected to a fake document-procuring operation for Jewish escapees in the back of a bread shop is also never fleshed out, and the affected Polish accent of Antonia can also make her a bit difficult to understand at times.

Overall though, the film is a touching retelling of a fascinating but lesser-known story of heroism in occupied Poland, and it is one that deserves to be seen.

To learn more about the film, visit: http://www.focusfeatures.com/thezookeeperswife