On March 31, The Zookeeper’s Wife will premiere on the silver screen. The film, based on the non-fiction book written by Diane Ackerman, tells the story of Antonina Żabińska, a working wife and mother who helped hundreds of people during World War II.
The story takes place in 1939 Poland. Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński, are using his stewardship and her care to keep the Warsaw Zoo flourishing. But when their country is invaded by the Germans, the couple is forced to work under the eye of the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck. Antonia and her husband covertly begin working with the Resistance to fight back on their own terms— and put into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto.
The film features actors Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Daniel Brühl, and Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain. It was written by Angela Workman and directed by Niki Caro.
In a conference call that took place March 4, Director Niki Caro discussed her draw to the film and the intentions she had in making it.
“I had not read The Zoo Keeper’s Wife before I was approached [to make the film],” Caro said. “In fact, that was part of the attraction to it. Antonia Żabiński’s story had kind of fallen through the seams of history and I was amazed when I read the script to learn it was a true story.”
Caro said that she began telling stories that were either true or based in truth early on in her career and that she takes the responsibility very seriously.
“I work very, very hard to serve the material as well as I can,” she said. “For me, it takes me right out of it. It takes my ego right out of it. I literally serve the story and try to meet the need of the story and bring it to an audience that I know from experience will respond well to a story if the story is true.”
Caro had no concerns about making the film beyond doing it right and well.
“[I was concerned with] honoring so many souls that perished and shining a light on this very ordinary couple,” she said. “They were very ordinary. Their choice to do what they did, for no other reason than it was the right thing to do, is incredibly moving to me and inspiring and quite honestly, very pertinent for these times.”
Reflecting such a well-known moment in history and feeling a need to meet a high standard helped Caro and her actors in their portrayals.
“It carries a tremendous responsibility, to portray and real story, authentically onscreen, but this moment in history particularly so,” she said. “ I was just really consumed with doing my work as well as I could [and] with bringing people to the story that could share my really high ideals and aspirations to the filmmaking, and bringing in people for who man have a personal connection.”
Caro felt the weight of the film in documenting a dark period of history.
“A number of the supporting cast actually came from Israel and they carried the story, of course, absolutely in their D.N.A,” Caro said. “So for all of us, it was a tremendous responsibility and a story for which we were absolutely prepared to work to and beyond our best in the service of doing it incredibly well. Let alone, the fact that there have been a handful of great holocaust movies made.”
Caro relied heavily on emotions and relationships throughout the film to create an empathetic link with her audience.
“A lot of war movies focus on the horror, but for me, one of the key things was experiencing the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of Jan and his son,” she said. “The first time, during the movie we go into the ghetto we see it from their truck, from the zoo truck, and it’s Jan that takes us through. And that actor, Johan Heldenbergh was so emotionally open. When we experience it through his eyes, when he says, ‘It’s worse than I could have possibly imagined,’ that is enough.”