and Niki Caro
on “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and the Importance of Recognizing Women in History“The Zookeeper’s Wife”
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” tells the powerful story of Antonina Zabinski, a woman who risked her life to save the lives of 300 Jews during World War II. Based on a book by Diane Ackerman
, the film is coming to screens later this month via a screenplay penned by Angela Workman
. Niki Caro
(“Whale Rider,” “North Country
”) directs and Jessica Chastain
”) plays Zabinski, who ran the Warsaw Zoo with her husband during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. She also saved hundreds of innocent people who became refugees overnight.
In an interview with Chastain and Caro during the publicity tour for the film, Chastain spoke very highly of the experience of playing a heroine who saved so many lives. She is not new to playing heroic figures, having also portrayed fierce women in films such as “Zero Dark Thirty
” and “The Martian
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” production team. Photo courtesy of Westwood.
When offered the role, Chastain said she first met with Caro in Milan, and was immediately impressed. “I was excited to meet Niki because I so love her film work. I can’t imagine anyone else directing this movie. Antonina once said that when you look into an animal’s eyes, you see exactly what’s in their heart. Niki is like that. She’s so authentic, and truthful, and honest,” she observed.
The subject of strong women is one that Chastain knows very well. “I was raised by a single woman. My grandmother
raised her family, and my mother raised three kids. I am where I am today because of the sacrifices they made. It wasn’t hard for me to find examples of a woman who — not sacrifices herself, but in a way, gives of — gives herself to others.”
She added, “I want to celebrate women in the past who have made great sacrifices to help others. We don’t acknowledge women in history as often as we should.”
When asked about bringing a Holocaust film to fruition, Caro said, “I had to think very hard about what I could bring to this genre. I recognized that it was femininity. I could take my inspiration from Antonina and be very soft and strong with this material. I was trying to move the genre on a little bit,” she explained. “I wanted to make a Holocaust movie that expressed healing in some measure. I thought we were making a historical drama. It’s only now that I realize we were making a contemporary film — sadly.”
Actress Jessica Chastain
and Director Niki Caro
on the set of The Zookeeper’S Wife, a Focus Features
Credit: Anne Marie Fox
/ Focus Features
In the film, Chastain rotates between a range of emotions as a mother, wife, hero, zoologist, and temptress to Lutz (Daniel Brühl
), a Nazi soldier who protected the couple, in part because of his respect for their accomplishments in building a world-renowned zoo, and in part because of a crush on Antonina.
To research her character, she first read Ackerman’s book where she culled much information about the character. “There was a quality that she had, where she would not disappear, but she would put the caring of others ahead of herself. For her, it was all about others — animals, people, or whatever it was, in terms of healing.” She also met with a lot of people who spend their lives dedicated to animals, which was helpful when approaching her role as a zoologist.
From there she went to Warsaw and on to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp. About her visit to the camp, she said. “Antonina wouldn’t have known what was happening there, but I needed to feel the energy of that space.”
There are other pivotal female roles in the film. Shira Haas
, an Israeli actress, plays a young Jewish girl called Urszula who Caro says was emblematic of all children during the war. When we first see her, she is being escorted to a secluded part of the ghetto by two Nazi soldiers. After taking sight of her, Antonina’s husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh
), rescues her and brings her to the zoo. Caro talked about the scenes between she and Antonina. “They were wonderful, because we see Antonina dealing with Urszula as she would with an animal when she first arrives,” she observed. “It’s her humanity with animals that brought to her work with human refugees. I think that sort of unspoken trust and compassion between those two characters, and those two actresses, is a very, very special part of the movie, for me. It was incredibly organic.”
“I was distraught about the rape of this young girl,” Chastain said, “but I’m happy to be in a movie where there’s no salacious rape scene that we’re forced to watch. It was wonderful to work with a director who had more delicacy and sensitivity with the subject.”
At the end of the film, Antonina comes face to face with Lutz in a scene where he contemplates killing her son and places her in a cage, where not only her animals were living before the war, but also the Jewish prisoners that she saved. “It was Niki’s idea to do that,” Chastain recalled. “The trick was to just get it out of my mind that everything would be okay. I had to tell Lutz that he was a good person and could not be capable of murdering a child. That’s why the moment is so shocking to the viewer. It was even to me while shooting it.”
The experience of making the film has made Chastain think differently about her life. “There are so many questions in my mind of how this could have happened. How could an entire country have done this? Many people were ordinary people who just got swayed by power. I can’t help but think how important this film is today,” she said. “I remember being in school and reading the Anne Frank
diary. We know that she was denied a visa into the United States. My teacher didn’t tell us that the reason she died was because the United States wouldn’t let her in.”
“This is a very, very emotional and important film for me,” Chastain reflected.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” opens nationally March 31.
and Niki Caro
on “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and the Importance of Recognizing Women in… was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.