When “The Zookeeper’s Wife” opens in theaters March 31, you’ll likely meet an unfamiliar heroine.
Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider” and “McFarland, USA”) had never heard of her either.
Based on Diane Ackerman’s novel of the same name, “Zookeeper” tells the story of the real-life couple Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who ran the popular Warsaw Zoo as the Nazis rose to power. The zoo was closed – most of its animals met an unfortunate fate – but it became a secret safe haven for hundreds of Jews; the Zabinskis were able to shelter and ultimately save 300 Jews during the war.
It stars Jessica Chastain as Antonina, Johan Heldenbergh as Jan and Daniel Brühl as Lutz Heck, the chief Nazi zoologist with mad-scientist tendencies (he tries to bring back an extinct ox species) and feelings for Antonina. The Zabinskis also receive the help of their faithful groundskeeper, played by Michael McElhatton in a decidedly less evil role than his “Game of Thrones” character Roose Bolton.
Chastain stands out as Antonina, perfectly embodying her character’s empathetic, matriarchal instincts toward both humans and animals. In fact, Caro said with a laugh, it seems that Chastain is genuinely an animal whisperer.
She lets her son keeps a skunk in the bedroom. She cradles a baby lion like an infant. She says “good morning” to a tiger as if they’re old pals. She even revives a suffocating baby elephant.
“Nobody was doubling for Jessica, there’s no special handling of the animals; what you see is literally what we got, which was Jessica with an elephant or a zebra,” said the New Zealand-born Caro. “They were very calm and curious with her. It was beautiful.”
Neither Chastain nor the animals received any kind of training.
“It’s unique, this movie, in that our philosophy was never to demand of an animal or require of an animal anything that it wouldn’t be doing naturally,” Caro said. “So if the screenplay required an action from an animal that the animal wasn’t going to do naturally or organically, then we changed the script. That way of working could only have been achieved with Jessica Chastain. She is genuinely an animal whisperer.”
Caro first came across the source material by Angela Workman’s screenplay. She was surprised she’d never heard of Antonina Zabinski and the role she played in history.
Jan and Antonina Zabinski were both recognized by Yad Vashem-The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. But Jan Zabinski might be the more well-known character in their story.
They rebranded their zoo as a pig farm for the Nazis and, as Jan Zabinski was allowed access to the Warsaw ghetto as a municipality worker, he went under the guise of collecting trash for the pigs to eat. As he filled his truck with scraps, he was able to smuggle Jews hidden beneath the garbage back to the zoo and men, women and children lived in hiding in the basement or in the underground tunnels that connected the animal cages. Some were able to escape to freedom in other parts of Poland, while others stayed with the Zabinskis.
They did this right under the nose of the Nazis, including Lutz Heck.
And while Jan Zabinski was, of course, heroic in his endeavors, Antonina Zabinski’s role was just as important.
She was responsible for their tenants’ safety, as well as her own son, during the day, communicating via piano when it was safe to come out, as Heck’s presence became more frequent – and increasingly with less notice. She dyed women’s hair blonde so they could leave in the broad daylight, disguised as her cousin or aunt.
“I was affected and inspired by her courage and her compassion, by her instinct to nurture and protect animals that translated so seamlessly to the human species and by the humanity and the decency and suppose the righteousness of the Zabinskis who did what they did for no other reason than it was the right thing to do,” Caro said. “That was very inspiring to me.”
To come to the film with a focus on its strong female lead, plus a female director, a female screenwriter and more female presence working on the film through set, costume and production designers and more, presented a unique female-centric wartime story.
Caro’s goal was ultimately “to honor the millions that died in that dark, dark period of time by celebrating 300 that survived and the extraordinary circumstances of that survival,” she explained.
“I wanted to make a very authentic movie from Antonina’s story and [in] making it authentic, we made it very feminine,” she said. “It’s another unusual approach probably for a wartime story in that it is very consciously feminine. It responds to the humanity and the healing, the light in the darkness more than the darkness itself.”
While Caro herself is not Jewish, she came to the film’s material in a uniquely familiar way: She was convinced she was Jewish until she was 11.
“Incidentally, I was educated in elementary school in a progressive school in New Zealand that was inside of a synagogue,” she said. “It was a Jewish school called Kadimah [School]. As a little girl, I learned Hebrew and sang ‘Hatikvah’ and knew all my prayers. So coming to this material, I felt familiar with it, I felt close to it, I felt the responsibility of it very keenly and I felt really at home.”
Caro will next dip her feet in another story of a formidable heroine as she prepares to direct the 2018 live-action adaption of “Mulan.” But it’s in the stories based in historical authenticity that Caro finds inspiration.
“I really enjoy telling stories that have their base in truth, whether it be a real story or a real character or a real community,” she said. “I get a lot of energy and inspiration from a truthful starting place.”
With “Zookeeper,” she hopes audiences walk away with the feeling that they, too, can do something.
“I hope they come away with an appreciation for what an ordinary person can do,” she said, “because Jan and Antonina were in many ways very, very ordinary, but they were decent and honorable people, Polish Christians for whom all life was sacred – animal life, human life, it didn’t matter. All life was sacred and worthy of protecting.”