'The Zookeeper's Wife' Offers a Timely Lesson

Director Niki Caro shares why her film is a story of humanity and healing, and what we can learn from it. 

- Posted on Mar 30, 2017

Jessica Chastain in "The Zookeeper's Wife"

Director Niki Caro admits to feeling a certain sense of responsibility while shooting her latest film The Zookeeper’s Wife set in Nazi-occupied Poland in the 1930s.

Starring Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain, the film follows the true story of Antonina Zabinski (Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski, who owned a zoo in Warsaw  just as the Nazis were beginning their occupation. Over the course of the war they smuggled to safety over 300 Jewish people being held in a nearby ghetto.

“I wanted to tell a war story, her story, in a way that was appropriate to her,” Caro tells Guideposts.org

Caro learned of Antonina’s story from the movie’s script, which was adapted from the book written by Diane Ackerman, which in turn was adapted from Antonina’s recovered diaries.

“It’s like the story has been handed carefully from woman to woman to woman over all these years and finally is on the screen,” Caro says.

For the director, Antonina’s journey presented an opportunity to tell a different kind of Holocaust story.

“The story is very much focused on humanity, on healing and on the idea that war didn’t just happen to men,” Caro says. “It happened to women and to children and to animals."

Antonina is the film’s heroine; a soft, gentle woman with a difficult past who prefers the company of animals to most people. She bears the burden of trying to keep her family safe while also helping her Jewish neighbors with a quiet strength that inspired Caro when she read the script.

“Often, femininity has been equated somehow with weakness and, as we know, that’s just not true,” Caro says when describing Antonina. “We know it from our mothers and our daughters, our friends and ourselves, that we can be both soft and strong and that strength comes in many colors and textures. Antonina’s instinct to protect and nurture animals translated quite seamlessly to the human species. It’s a very special part of her unique, soft strength.”

Besides redefining what a strong heroine looks like on screen, Caro’s also made a film that’s both timely and cautionary in nature.

“When I began, I thought we were making a historical drama,” the director says. “Then, when we were shooting, it was 2015 and we were in Central Europe, the migrant crisis was happening all around us. I was feeling very frightened because I felt like it was happening again; that the events that we were talking about in the movie were happening around me. Even then, I could never have predicted that what we’re experiencing in 2017 should so closely mimic what was happening in Poland in the late 1930s. I think the film has real relevance right now. I think that we have made a very contemporary movie.”

She hopes people can learn something from what the Zabinskis did and be inspired to help others in a similar way.

“What the Zabinskis show us is a shining example of humanity and human decency. I think that decency is something we don’t talk about anymore but it’s a quality I admire and am inspired by,” Caro explains.

She also hopes the movie finds some success at the box office so that she can help other female filmmakers find the spotlight. Caro, who’s been tapped to helm Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, explains the only way she knows how to break the glass ceiling when it comes to Hollywood’s lack of female directors, besides hiring women as often as possible, is to lead by example.

“I will admit to carrying a kind of survivor’s guilt for the fact that I’m working when so many incredibly talented and ambitious women are not,” Caro says. “Absurdly, there’s a sense that there’s a level of risk to hire a woman to be a leader of a movie. I don’t understand it, I find it perplexing, but it exists, so in my professional life, if I can continue to make films that are considered to be successful, if I can come in on time and on budget, then as far as I’m concerned I’m going to kick that door open so that legions of female filmmakers can rush through it.”

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