The Zookeeper’s Wife is the real life story of Antonia Zabinska and her family, who saved 300 people in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. Director Niki Caro brings the screenplay, based on the book, to life. Keepers at the Warsaw Zoo before, during and after, the Nazi occupation of Poland, the family transforms the zoo into a sanctuary for preserving human lives during the war.
For those of you who were disappointed in the book, never fear. The movie delivers on the promise of a beautifully artistic narrative. It doesn’t attempt to collect and display every individual and animal that passed through the Zabinska’s doorway, like the book. The movie is subtle in its exploration of the humanity that can be learned from animals. It also deals with the effects of stress, be it war, or jealousy, on individuals and families.
Jessica Chastain’s performance, as Antonina Zabinska is impeccable, as all her roles have been. The character of Lutz Heck, the head of the Berlin Zoo is played by Daniel Bruhl. His role is expanded in the film, leading to a much more intriguing story.
Despite all the talk about Jessica and Daniel, the character that most intrigued me, was Antonina’s husband. Jan Zabinska is played by Belgium actor, Johan Heldenbergh. Jan’s character is serious and strict. He is also guarded, insecure and vulnerable. It’s a range few leading men can do, or ever attempt. He deals with the conflicting feelings of protecting his family, while hoping to preserve his ideals. When he sees innocence lost to the ghetto, you see the subtlety of a strong man breaking down – while holding it together. Johan’s performance is masterful.
I had the opportunity to sit with both actress, Jessica Chastain and director, Niki Caro about the film. In preparing for the film Jessica Chastain says she started with the book, based on Antonina’s journals. She met with Antonina’s daughter, Theresa, and she visited the Warsaw Zoo. She said, “Then I went to Auschwitz. Antonina wouldn’t have known what was happening there, but I just wanted to feel the energy of the space.”
In preparing for the film, director Niki Caro said:
“I took the responsibility very seriously. Authenticity & specificity has always been important in my work. But this represented a bigger challenge – to honor all of those souls that died, whilst celebrating 300 that didn’t die, and the amazing work of the Zabinskas. I was trying to move the genre on and to make a holocaust movie that expressed healing in some measure. I thought I was making an historical drama and only now I realize that we are making a modern movie. In terms of the film making, we were tireless and diligent in our research and the reality of the Warsaw ghetto was really tough.”
Jessica, how did you prepare for working with the animals?
“I met with a lot of people who spend their lives dedicated to animals. That was so helpful when approaching this film, because the thing that I learned was not to impose your energy onto an animal; not to treat an animal as though it’s your possession, or an object. Whether human or animal, they are not ours to possess. If I were to ever get hurt on this movie, it’s because I’m doing something wrong. It’s not the animals’ fault. It means, they weren’t ready for me to be in their space. They didn’t invite me in.”
I wondered if Jessica had a favorite animal on set and if she was worried, even after preparations, about a scene involving elephants.
“The elephant was probably my favorite animal to work with. Her name is Lilly. She would put her trunk on my hand, and at one point she wrapped her truck around my hand, and then squeezed and pulled me under the fence. It was a very humbling moment because this was a very big animal and she could do with me whatever she wanted. But she just wanted to play and she was really funny.”
Jessica made sure to point out that in making of an anxious scene with the elephant, the elephant was actually playing hide and seek with apples and not under any duress. “That was the most fun I had. I had to be so trusting.”
Jessica Chastain’s performance, and the animals, give the story its humanity on the big screen. The movie strikes a balance on showing the inhumanity of war, without shocking the audience with gore and violence. Instead it uses techniques such as the jolt of sudden gun shots, or the psychological aftermath of a rape.
Director Niki Caro spoke specifically of portraying rape, a subject not discussed in the book:
“The character of Ursula (a young Jewish teen) is emblematic of all the children who are hurt by war. I had to think hard about what I could bring to the genre. I recognized that it was femininity, I could take my expression from Antonina and be very strong and very soft with this material. Ursula was important because her experience (a rape) had made her “animal.” We see Antonina dealing with Ursula as she would deal with an animal, very instinctive; not coming too close, but reassuring her that she’s there. Antonina’s connection to animals is the humanity she brought to her human refugees. That unspoken trust and compassion between those two characters, is a special part of the movie for me. It was incredibly organic; the whole film was. But in that scene in particular, there was a bunny. And the bunny really shows us the healing power of animals that can break through to this girl.”
Jessica made sure to mention that she appreciated Caro’s handling of the subject.
“I was happy to be in a film where there are no salacious scenes that we are forced to watch. There are so many films in our industry, directed in such a way that makes rape a salacious thing. It was wonderful to work with a woman who had more delicacy.”
Finally, Jessica says of this film, “When I think about Holocaust films, we think of the darkness, the hate and murder, but rarely do we see the light. With people like Antonia, it is important to celebrate that light.”
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” definitely brings light and some healing to an often dark genre. The Zookeeper’s Wife opens Friday, March 31st in theaters across the country.
See the trailer here:
Picture credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features