The Zookeeper’s Wife premiere was on a windy and unusually icy cold evening in LA. It seemed fitting since the film takes place in the freezing cold era of 1940’s Warsaw, Poland. The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on a nonfiction book by author Diane Ackerman about the owners of the Warsaw Zoo at the start of World War II.
Ackerman told me she spent years digging deep into the lives of Jon and Antonina Zabinski and everything in the movie is based on actual events and conversations pieced together from diaries and records from that time. Screenwriter Angela Workman talked with me on the red carpet about the challenges of staying true to a piece of non-fiction, but finding a through line and story that would be interesting to watch. And after seeing the film, I’d say she succeeded.
I knew this movie would be intense. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how powerful and resonant for today’s political climate the entire film would be. Jessica Chastain plays Antonina and fully emmersed herself in the life of this reserved Polish woman with a harrowing inner strength. In fact everyone in the film including Johan Heldenbergh (Jon Zabinksi), Shira Haas (Urzula) and Daniel Brül (Lutz Heck) delivered such powerful performances you could actually feel the sacrifice and danger they put themselves in.
The film starts when the Warsaw Zoo is flourishing under the Zabinski’s care. When their country is invaded by German Nazis at the start of World War II they decide they must do something to save the people who were being targeted for their race. The Nazis were rounding up Jews and putting them in ghettoes and shipping them off on trains to be killed. Jon and Antonina Zabinski risked their lives and the lives of their children to help hundreds of Jews escape by hiding them in plain sight at the Zoo.
Jessica told me what drew her to this project was the idea of what happens to women, children and animals during the horrors of war.
Chastain said, “We’ve had so many films in the past that focus on the male perspective of war. But it’s very rare to explore what happens to women, children and animals during war. That was interesting to me.”
Something else unique about this film is the large number of women working in front of and behind the camera. The lead, the director, the screenwriter, the author, and several producers are all women. An unusual situation in Hollywood but one director Niki Caro hopes will become more familiar.
Caro told me, “It shouldn’t be unusual that there were so many women working on this movie. It didn’t feel unusual to me, it felt very normal. On the other hand it felt very special because all of us wanted to honor and care for Antonina’s story.”
Heldenbergh says he wanted to be in this film because the themes are still relevant today. “It tells a story that I feel is worth telling in any era. But now in 2017, it reflects on who we can be as a human being,” he said.
Backed by Ackerman’s tireless research, Workman does a compelling job telling Antonina’s story and giving us a peek into a dark time in world history with a ray of hope. Combined with Caro’s beautiful visual story telling, The Zookeeper’s Wife will give viewers a sense of hope again, no matter what dark times we may face in the future.
The Zookeeper’s Wife opens March 31st and stars Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, and Daniel Brül.