Lion-Hearted: Niki Caro’s ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ recounts true story of a World War II heroine

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“I really had no desire to make a Holocaust movie, but with this one, I saw the opportunity to approach it in a different way,” says Niki Caro, director of Focus Features’ The Zookeeper’s Wife. Her sixth directorial feature—in a notably wide-ranging career that also includes Whale Rider and North Country—is a rare, intimate epic that plays with emotional and physical juxtapositions through a big-hearted but small-scale family story, set against the backdrop of vast human tragedy. Joining me on the phone from Los Angeles in February, Caro validates this view. She expresses her love of moving between polarities in her films, noting that Angela Workman’s script (based on the nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman) was filled with potential in that regard.

The Zookeeper’s Wife follows Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain), a real-life woman who helped saved the lives of hundreds in 1939 Poland. A gifted zookeeper and an animal caregiver as well as a wife and a mother, Antonina is devoted to all facets of her life. Her marriage to Dr. Jan Zabinski (The Broken Circle Breakdown’s Johan Heldenbergh) is a flawless, loving partnership, through which they successfully manage their zoo and raise their family. But with the war mercilessly erupting around them, the couple is forced to close their doors after a devastating attack by the Germans. Soon, they find themselves forced to work with Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), who conceptualizes a different kind of selective breeding program for the zoo. While appearing compliant on the surface, the Zabinskis join the resistance movement at great personal risk and utilize their zoo’s cages and underground tunnels to save the lives of people who’d otherwise end up in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Zookeeper’s Wife ended up in Caro’s hands through the producers of the film. A draft from Workman had already been commissioned by the producing team when Caro, then living in New Zealand, came aboard. “This was 2011 maybe... basing this on my eldest’s child’s birthday,” the director recalls. “Angela had done so much. She was very thorough, and a lot of work had been done on the script by the time I came along. My involvement was probably quite refreshing for the filmmaking team, because I had a very strong vision for the movie. Angela and I worked together to make a movie out of the script she had, make it something that could be shot, that an audience would engage with. [We wanted] all the strengths of the real story, Diane Ackerman's book, which was a wealth of information and insight, and Angela's screenwriting gifts.”

Part of Caro’s vision was immediately seeing the story from a feminine point of view and visualizing some of the aforementioned juxtapositions: the intimate moments surrounded by the immense story happening outside, the play between “the very exotic” and “the very domestic” throughout Antonina’s journey and the way she engages with those two things in a feminine and instinctive way. “I felt that this story gave us the opportunity to show what war brings to bear on a marriage. Jan is very traditional. He wanted to spare his wife the horrors of what he was experiencing in the resistance, and you see the unbearable burden he's carrying in Johan Heldenbergh's performance. [But] she's dealing with her own version of the same: so many traumatized people under her roof and care. And in that, it felt like a very modern relationship, where two people who love each other experience two different forms of stress.”

One of the most apparent themes in The Zookeeper’s Wife is its metaphoric approach to the value of life, from two different directions. The film examines the relationship between humans and animals, as well as the healing animals can bring to the human soul. “Animals allow us to express our humanity. They bring out the best in us,” Caro observes. “And I think you can really see that in the film. Even when Antonina has no animals left, she still employs a tiny rabbit to open up the kennel between her and this young girl, who herself is very animal-like because of what has been done to her. Antonina is very much a traditional wife, subservient to her husband [as appropriate to] the period. Yet quite unusually, she had a very heightened ability with animals. In many ways, she communicated with animals better than she communicated with people. She cared for her guests, [who were] effectively caged in her house, in the way she cared for animals, with the same tenderness and instincts.”

When it came to casting the right actor for the role of Antonina, Jessica Chastain was everyone’s first choice. And she was onboard immediately. “When we were shooting, [Jessica] told me it would have killed her to see this movie with any other actress in the role,” Caro recalls. “It was so clearly meant for her. Her involvement and participation made this movie so much more than it ever could have been with another actor. Jessica shares Antonina's gift, a gift that very few people have. And I saw it with my own eyes, the way that animals would relax with her. They would trust her. She has an otherworldly connection with them. My purest instinct in filmmaking is for something to be authentic and specific. So to find this pure relationship between an actress and an animal was the essence of the movie. And she brought it for us in every way, with animals and humans. There was nobody on that set she couldn't mesmerize.”

Caro and her team collaborated with a variety of trainers, handlers and caregivers in order to work with the animals on the set. “[These people] had decades worth of experience in the region. We had a lot of animals and I’m very proud to have worked on a production that fostered a safe and respectful environment for them. I never, ever want an animal to do a trick for me onscreen.”

The filmmakers created a zoo for the production and brought the animals in, usually separated by species. Caro says her philosophy was for the animals to be as comfortable and well cared for as possible, so that they would react as they normally would according to their nature. “The animals were never asked to do a certain thing. They just did their thing and we worked around it. It was quite challenging for some of the crewmembers to get their head around. But it's an amazing way to work. We got some beautiful stuff, because the animals were being themselves. It's really like when you work with actors. If you work with the great ones, they surprise you all the time. To be open to that and to be alive to that is to take filmmaking to a whole different, exciting level.”

For creating the zoo and capturing an exact sense of time and location true to the real zoo Antonina lived in, “kudos to Suzie Davies, our production designer,” cheers Caro. “Just from looking at her images, I knew she absolutely got it: the femininity, the exoticism. She and I shared a very big vision that was kind of bigger than the budget. But we kept it on budget. Suzie pre-scouted in Europe for me, and I met her in Prague, and she took me to an abandoned, neglected exhibition park in the middle of the city. We stood there in this broken-up place, and she said, ‘I think we can build a zoo here. And this will be where the villa is.’ And she walked me through where all the cages would be. She made it happen. The villa itself is an exact replica of the real villa. So if you go to the Warsaw Zoo, should you ever find yourself there, you can literally go to what looks like our set. It's that authentic, right down to the wallpaper in the room where they have the cocktail party. And that was the philosophy all the way across the filmmaking, from the performances of the human cast, to the animals, to the production design, to our use of location.”

That authenticity is reflected magnificently in the film’s characters, too. For starters, Caro had no interest in painting Antonina as a fake, cookie-cutter “strong woman” without complexity or imperfections. Chastain was very much on the same page. The two were determined from day one to respect the realness of this character, and bring her to the screen in the most authentic possible way: true to who Antonina really was, and true to the era she lived in. “I got a little bit of pushback on this,” Caro admits. “The expectation somehow [was] that a female hero had to be really strong and strident and kind of kick-ass. I reacted very strongly against that push. Antonina was a real person to me. She was very much a woman of her time. She was a wife, she was very gifted with animals, but her world was very small within the zoo. The journey she goes on over the course of the film, the decision she makes to shelter Jews in her home, represents the highest form of courage. And all the more so because it comes from what people might think is a very unlikely place. And yet that heroism to me is real, and that's the sort of female hero I want to see. I don't want to see somebody's fantasy of what a female hero is.”

Caro acknowledges that this kind of approach to crafting a female hero—a complex one that can be strong and determined but vulnerable and imperfect at the same time—is unfortunately in its infancy. “We are hopefully going to open up a whole new kind of cinema, when we allow women to tell real stories about themselves. And it's going be exciting and exhilarating, and it's probably a little bit challenging for some people who want us to be somebody's girlfriend, or to be Lara Croft. We've got a lot of ground to make up.”

One of the dimensions of the film that exemplifies Antonina’s complexity and journey is her relationship to Lutz Heck, whom Caro approached from a layered angle too. “It was very important to me to portray him not as a mustached villain, but as a really complex man that he was. He did love and respect animals in the same way as Antonina. He was also an avid hunter. So that's a really interesting contradiction in a character, to start with. And then you have Daniel Brühl, who's a quieter version of Heck than maybe a lot of people would have gone for when cast as a Nazi villain. But this makes him all the more compelling and dangerous to me. And it’s very [complicated], how Antonina must [manage him] and almost tame him the way she would any dangerous animal. She has that instinct. She says, ‘I'll work with him. We'll be able to keep an eye on him. I've got this, I can handle this.’ But she then has to deal with his growing affection for her. And that puts her in a horrifying spot. She is incredibly shy and can barely get a word out of her mouth when Lutz Heck talks to her. And yet when she's called to help an animal, she is so instinctive and so strong and so in control. And that's Antonina.”

Asked whether she’s drawn specifically to female-centric material, Caro says (also referencing her 2015 sports film McFarland, USA, starring Kevin Costner), I like humanity in all its forms. I don't go out and look for female-focused material per se. I'm much more interested in what speaks to me. And yet I'm finding female stories interesting at the moment. That's a frontier I'm very happy to explore.”

And indeed, another heroine is on the horizon for Caro, as she just came onboard as director of Mulan, Disney’s live-action remake of the classic tale, due in 2018. But she can’t really offer any clues at this point. “I am sort of gagged and bound. It is very exciting and I'm very excited. [As for the reasons why I said yes to it], you just need to look at Whale Rider. All the answers are there.”