Last week I screened The Zookeeper’s Wife, a Holocaust-themed film directed by Niki Caro. The Holocaust is a very personal issue for me. My feelings have very deep roots, stemming back to my childhood and it often fuels my writing. I’ve interviewed survivors, written about my recent visits to concentration camps, talked about why my being a mother makes the connection even deeper, and why we must #NeverForget. I also gravitate towards Holocaust films and review them as often as possible.
Holocaust films are not easy to make and I’ve watched my share of them. The film does its best to stay faithful to the subject and to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. While the details of life in the ghetto and camps is not brought to life as vividly in films such as Schindler’s List and The Piano, it very quietly brings in the horrid details of what happened to life through a story focusing on the heroism and bravery of just some of the many selfless, righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the war. These are vital stories that demand to be told.
The film is based on a book with the same name by Diane Ackerman about a couple who hid Jews in the Warsaw zoo during World War II and used it as a point of passage and escape during the Nazi reign. Jessica Chastain, playing Antonina Żabińska, leads an ensemble cast in beautiful performances, bringing a tender portrayal of a time in our history that is hard to comprehend, but one that is important and remains relevant.
Caro, who directed WhaleRider and is expected to direct the new live-action version of Mulan, recreated the Żabińska’s with so much compassion. She has brought a story to the screen about a woman of bravery who helped save lives during a dangerous, turbulent time. Antonina Żabińska ran a zoo circa 1939, when the film starts, and related to her animals in ways that are so honorable, so much so that the first scene we witness her saving a baby elephant. After war breaks out in Poland, she and her husband, played by Johan Heldenbergh, started to see what was happening to the Jews and quietly joined the resistance, They saved more than 300 Jews during the course of the war, rescuing them from the Warsaw Ghetto where Jews were dying and being taken to concentration camps, by bringing them into the zoo secretly by hiding them under trash and pig food in their truck. Had they been caught, their lives would have ended, leaving their son behind. Antonina gets pregnant with another child near the end of the war. That child, Theresa Żabińska, is alive today.
I was lucky to spend time with Chastain and Caro, two fierce Hollywood players during the publicity tour for the film. My interest was heightened in their work due to my own personal experiences studying and reading about the Holocaust.
Chastain spoke very highly of her experience working on this film. She really appreciated playing a heroine who saved so many lives. “I want to celebrate women in the past who have made great sacrifices to help others,” she said. “I don’t think we acknowledge women in history as often as we should. I’m excited to be part of this story that gets to share it with a larger audience.”
To research her character, Chastain went to great depths. “When we talk about Holocaust films we rarely see the light. With people like Antonina, it’s important to celebrate that lightness.”
She started with the book. “By reading the book, you feel like you know her, because you hear her words; you read her words,” she added. “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. I related to that. 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.”
Then she took her research to Europe. “I went to Warsaw to meet with Theresa (Antonina’s daughter),” she said. “She took me to the Warsaw Zoo, and I got to ask her secrets that weren’t in the book. I also went to Auschwitz. Of course, Antonina wouldn’t have known what was happening there, but I just wanted to feel the energy of the space. In addition, I met with a lot of people who spend their lives dedicated to animals, which was helpful when approaching this film, because the thing that I learned most from everyone was not to impose your energy onto an animal; not to treat an animal as though it’s your possession, or it’s an object.”
The film is very much a woman’s film. The two producers were women. The screenwriter was a woman. There’s a lead actress. The director is a woman. They broke records for the hiring of female crew members to make the film.
When asked about her role in 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.”
Caro also touched on the responsibility of making yet another Holocaust film, adding that it was one that she took quite seriously. “Authenticity and specificity has always been really, really important in my work,” she said. “But this represented a much bigger challenge – to honor all of those souls that died, whilst celebrating 300 that didn’t, as well as the amazing work of the Żabińska’s. I was trying to move the genre on a little bit; 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’re making a contemporary film – sadly.”
An oppositional character was written into the film in the form of a Nazi soldier, played quite genuinely by Daniel Lutz. He and Chastain had a few very tough scenes, which were written into the film based on Antonina’s diaries. “There is evidence from his letters that he greatly admired Antonina. There was definitely something there, Caro said. “The two actors had a great relationship and a tremendous amount of trust. So we could really go there. He loved her. She just didn’t love him. When you have trust between the actors, and everybody feels safe, and confident in the material, it doesn’t need to be a traumatic experience. On the contrary, it can be amazing, and you can get amazing material out of it.”
As someone who takes the Holocaust very seriously, as someone who sees the value of bringing the history to mass audiences, so that we truly never forget what can happen under the ruling of a dictator, I am personally grateful to these two women for taking their jobs so seriously.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is an achievement that should not be underestimated. It’s a film that has compassion for the six million that died. It comes to theaters nationwide on March 31st.
Disclosure: I was invited to attend a preview of the film and to a press junket with Caro and Chastain. As always, all opinions stated are my own.