The Zookeeper’s Wife: Jessica Chastain and Niki Caro Discuss War, Film, and Femininity

A few months ago I came across a great blog post by Messy Nessy Chic by Inge Oosterhoff about a zoo in Warsaw that gave shelter to Jews during World War II. The zoo’s operators, Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina, faced a variety of hardships during the early years of the war. But Jan and Antonina had been involved with subversive activism even before the war and continued their efforts of resistance even after Germany had entered Poland. The empty cages of the zoo were used as a shelter for the Jewish families and individuals that Jan managed to sneak out of the Warsaw ghettos, where they stayed until they could be moved using false documents that the Żabińskis procured. It really is an excellent post, and I highly recommend that you read it when you have a chance. The post mentioned that the book The Zookeeper’s Wife, written by Diane Ackerman, inspired by Antonina’s diaries, was being made into a movie – which is in theaters now!

The Zookeeper's Wife

The story, of course, stuck with me though I had no idea at the time that I read the Oosterhoff’s post that I would be invited to an advanced screening and press junket for the very same film! The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Jessica Chastain as Antonina Żabińska and directed by Niki Caro, illustrates Antonina’s experiences at the Warsaw Zoo.

Here’s a spoiler-free synopsis, after which follows a somewhat spoiler-y Q&A:

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the real-life story of one working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during World War II. In 1939 Poland, Antonina Żabińska (portrayed by two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh of “The Broken Circle Breakdown”), have the Warsaw Zoo flourishing under his stewardship and her care. When their country is invaded by the Germans, Jan and Antonina are stunned – and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of “Captain America: Civil War”). To fight back on their own terms, Antonina and Jan covertly begin working with the Resistance – and put into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and even her children at great risk.

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After seeing the film, I was completely taken in by not only Jessica Chastain’s performance, and Director Niki Caro’s beautiful film, but especially by the performance of Israeli actress Shira Haas who plays Ursula, a young Jewish girl who Jan helps remove from the Warsaw ghettos after she is raped by two Nazi soldiers. Ursula is not included in the book, but it was shot and acted in such a way that it became such a central part of the entire movie.

I asked Niki and Jessica if they could speak about filming those scenes, as well as what it was like to act them out with Shira Haas.

NIKI CARO: The character of Ursula is emblematic of all children who are hurt by war. And so as the director of this movie, I had to think very hard about what I could bring to this genre. And I recognized that it was femininity; that I could take my inspiration from Antonina, and be very soft, and very strong with this material. And so Ursula was a very, very important character, because her experience had made her animal – it’s an incredible performance, obviously; young Israeli actress called Shira Haas. And the scenes between her and Antonina are wonderful, because we see Antonina dealing with Ursula as she would with an animal – which is to say, very instinctively; not coming too close, but reassuring her that she’s there. It’s Antonina’s connection to animals that – her humanity with animals that she brings to – that she brought to her human refugees, you know. And I think that sort of unspoken trust and compassion between those two characters, and those two actresses, is a very, very special part of the movie, for me.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: I have to say I was very happy to – sorry, this is a little bit about this. But I was happy to be in a film that, for me when I watch the movie, I’m distraught about the rape of this young girl. But there’s no salacious scene that we’re forced to watch.

NIKI CARO: Um-hmm.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: And I find that in a lot of films in our industry, it’s directed in a way that it becomes this salacious thing. And it was wonderful to work with a woman who had more delicacy with that. And then, what was your question for me?

PRESS: About what was it like to work with the young actress?

JESSICA CHASTAIN: Well, Shira’s an incredible actress. And you know, I just kind of – I instinctively knew to not try to distract her in any way. You know, when we were filming that stuff, she was so in it, that I didn’t want to be like, “Hey, how was dinner tonight?” you know, and talking about things that didn’t connect to what the scene was. So I always held back. I, you know, I was there in case she needed me, or I, you know, was watching her in between takes. But I never tried to do anything that would pull her out of it.

NIKI CARO: You know, it was incredibly organic, actually, the whole – the whole movie was. But in that scene, in particular, there was a bunny. And the bunny is – really shows us the healing power of animals – that it’s a little bunny that can break through for this girl. And that’s Antonina’s gift, really, to know, you know, without words, without overt action, just what to do in that moment. And Jessica absolutely has that gift herself, as a human being. So – which really made my job very, very easy.

Murder is horrific, and it’s important to note that there is a massive industry surrounding horror films that capitalize on murder as entertainment. With that in mind, I think that that there is a great danger in that portrayal of rape can be turned into something entertaining – because movie making is still an industry motivated at some point by profit. So I was grateful to hear Jessica, who works within the film and entertainment industry herself, point out the amazing job that Niki Caro does as a director, and how she deals with such complex and sensitive material in a way that is not salacious but still illustrates the extreme horror of rape, especially because Ursula is a child.

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The film, which naturally revolves around Antonina’s diaries and her life at the zoo, does not ignore the intense personal problems that Antonina would have had to deal with herself. Questions like what would happen to her children if they were found out, or what happens within a marriage in extremely stressful situations, are not ignored. I think instead of moving away from the horrors of the Holocaust and of the Second World War, The Zookeeper’s Wife broadens the scope of our understanding within the platform of film. For instance, I was never taught about the Żabińskis in school. I was never taught about people like Antonina, Jan, Irena Sendler and others recognized at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. I wish it had been a part of my elementary or middle school curriculum, which is part of what drew Jessica to the film.

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“I was really inspired by her. And also, I want to celebrate women in the past who have made great sacrifices to help others. We don’t really – I don’t think we acknowledge women in history as often as we should. And so I’m excited to be part of this story that gets to – gets to share it with a larger audience” Jessica also added.

The Zookeeper's Wife Press Junket NYC

The zoo still stands to this day. The film opens in theaters on March 31st! Check out these behind the scenes clips:

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