Unknown stories of war heroes, particularly WWII, seldom are unearthed, but the stories of heroines of that era seem to be even more rare. The name Antonina Zabinski will soon be a recognizable name thanks to the film “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on the book by Diane Ackerman of the same name. The film, starring Jessica Chastain as the lead character, Antonina, had an overwhelming number of women at the helm including the director Niki Caro (“The Whale Rider”) with whom I had a chance to talk about her perspective of this historically significant story.
Niki, initially unaware of the higher than average number of women associated with this film, felt that it was “…appropriate given that it is the story of a woman in war time.” However, Caro said, “I hire the best person for the job, always. It just so happens that many of these were women, remarkably.” Recognizing that war films are typically from a male’s point of view, she said, “…but it occurs to me that war happens to women, it also happens to children and it happens to animals.”
While the movie was based on the book, there were subtle details that weren’t on that written page. With painstaking research using only documentary evidence and found footage, the creative team delved deeply into this time period, attempting to understand it as best they could from their own “privileged position.” In addition, Caro shared that Antonina’s daughter, Teresa, consulted with her and Chastain, to provide invaluable information about her mother; things that only a daughter would know about her mother. One peculiar fact was that Antonina would never wear pants even though they were quite suitable for working with animals as well as chic to do so in that era. Creating a character wearing only dresses was not something Caro would have thought to do, but thanks to Teresa’s input, Chastain’s styled portrayal rings true to Antonina.
Chastain also seems to embody the true personality of Antonina. Known as an animal advocate and a vegan, Chastain reportedly exuded such a connection and confidence with the animals that it inspired everyone on the set to feel and act accordingly. “When you see her with an animal,” Caro said, “she is with the animal. There is no double for Jessica Chastain.” With absolute respect and awe in her voice, Caro continued, “To describe it as fearlessness is incorrect and yet in some of those instances I would be fearful…it was that she was confident…I was really inspired by that…and that I could also operate very strongly from instinct and [with] very quiet confidence around the animals.”
The animals themselves were a main character in the film. Caro assured me that she would never ask the animals to do anything specifically for the camera. “If there was a scripted action for an animal that an animal was not going to do naturally, then I changed the shot, I changed the action so that we could observe the animals. I was very confident that whatever they would give us in the moment would be the right thing.”
Interestingly, we humans resort to our animalistic or primal responses in certain situations. Sexuality is something that is addressed in this film in three very different ways, but all portrayed with the utmost care and sensitivity; and all very important in driving the plot forward. With a rape of a young girl, a physical possessiveness from Antonina’s husband Jan, and the use of sexual attraction for manipulation created deeply meaningful parts in this film. Caro feels that, “Female sexuality from a female’s point of view is rather underexplored in cinema.” She gave profound insight to these three integral scenes. “Ursula, the rape of the child, you never see it. You know exactly what’s going on. You see the damage done to that child so that she is rendered non-human. By the time Antonina inherits her, she [is] somebody who has become animal and has to use her instincts to protect her [as well as] bring her back into the human race.”
Caro expressed that both she and Chastain are “…extremely troubled by rape scenes in films. No part of me wants to be gratuitous about this. Therefore, this is something you never see in this movie, but you see the damage and then you see the healing.”
Caro continued to talk about Jan and Antonia’s fight instigated by jealousy, territory, if you will. “Jan feels that he’s lost his wife and he wants to possess her again…he has a territory that’s been invaded and he’s taking that territory back. [It’s] a very primal response…a very honest response.”
And finally, Antonina, as Caro interpreted her behavior with Lutz Heck, (Daniel Bruhl) the Nazi zookeeper, was not manipulative in nature, but in fact her actions were motivated by a need to protect everyone she loved, possibly sacrificing herself. This, Caro said, “is uniquely female.”
Caro has been personally changed by the experience of directing “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” While she has always recognized what an incredibly dark time in history the Holocaust was, she had never delved so deeply into the realities of it until now. She said, “I don’t know that I will ever be quite the same which is a very small gesture in the scheme of things. The intention was…to honor those millions who died in the Holocaust by celebrating the hundreds that survived and the extraordinary work of Antonina and her husband in saving them.” Understanding that generations to come would be forever changed, she said, “People exist who would not have existed. Children were born who would never have been born. It’s amazing to think of this and beautiful and healing…” The beauty of the film is the humanity that is discovered and revealed.
© Pamela Powell (3/27/17) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Niki Caro directs “The Zookeeper’s Wife”
Middle Photo: Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain as “Jan Zabinski” and “Antonina Zabinski”
Bottom Photo: Jessica Chastain as “Antonina Zabinski”
Photo Credits: Scion Films, Czech Anglo Productions, LD Entertainment