This is a powerful movie about a woman and her family who helped Jews escape Nazi Poland during WW2:
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.
The movie is based on a book, which is based on the diary of Antonina, the zookeepers wife. We follow their life before the war, through the war where they realize they have to help people, some of whom are their close friends. Their courage and humanity are remarkable and I am thrilled their story is being told via the big screen. We must never forget. We see them over the course of the war when their zoo turns into a pig farm. A brilliant idea on their part to keep the zoo open! We also see the horrors of war , especially in the Warsaw Ghetto, thank goodness for people like these that risked their lives to save other human beings.
The movie is over 90% accurate, with some fiction to drive home the terror of the times. It is moving, it is riveting, and it is also heartbreaking to see what was done to human beings by other human beings.
We previewed the movie and then had the incredible opportunity to sit and chat with Jessica Chastain! Jessica said that the first thing she did when she received the script for review, was to see if this was a true story. After talking about the role with Director Niki Caro in Milan, she was inspired to portray a woman from the past who made great sacrifices and like many others like her, are still relatively unknown. Then her real research began:
I went to Warsaw, met with Theresa (the daughter of Antonina born during the war). She took me to the Warsaw Zoo, and I got to ask her secrets that weren’t in the book. Things like – if Antonina was an animal, what kind of animal would she be? And she said, “Oh, definitely a cat. She’d be a little puma.” Which is why Jan calls her Punia – that was a nickname which means little cat.
She shared that she also went to Auschwitz to get a real feeling for the horrors of the time. She also spent time with people dedicated to animals, as the role of zookeeper’s wife includes dealing with a lot of animals! She spent time around the animals that she would be dealing with in the movie so that they could get used to her. She described how she learned to work with the elephant, by feeding her apples, and then hiding some apples on her person so that when we are looking at a scene where it looks like the elephant won’t let go of Antonina, it is actually Lily the elephant looking for apples.
We also discussed the cages around the zoo, and how they were also a metaphor. Animals are in cages in a zoo, and once the war started Antonina and her family were essentially forced to stay in the zoo which became their cage. And certainly the Warsaw Ghetto was a cage.
Jessica Chastain became the zookeeper’s wife, she did a wonderful job in the role, and it was an honor to meet her!
It was also terrific to have the opportunity to speak with the Director of this important movie, Niki Caro. I was shocked to see her list of credits, I had no idea she was responsible for the New Zealand movie, Whale Rider! Niki likes to do work that showcases strong women, which is why this movie was a great one for her to tackle, and why the live action Mulan is perfect for her next challenge!
Niki also made a comment on today’s issues. I interpret what she says to be like that old saying, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. There is a rise ion hatred all over the world, we do not want anything from this recent past to be repeated:
Authenticity and specificity has always been really, really important in my work. But this represented a much bigger challenge – to honor all of those souls that died, whilst celebrating 300 that didn’t, and the amazing work of the Zabinskis. I think – well, I know that what I was trying to do at the time was to move the genre on a little bit; to make a Holocaust movie that expressed healing in some measure. I thought we were making a historical drama. And it’s only now that I realize we’re making a contemporary film – sadly. But in terms of the filmmaking, we were really tireless, and diligent in our research – which meant going very deeply into the reality of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was really tough, but we were – all of us – cinematographer, production designer, costume, makeup, hair – everybody – very, very invested in getting it right.
We are reminded that Anne Frank, who wrote brilliantly about hiding in Amsterdam during the war, until her capture and eventual death, was someone who’s family was denied a Visa to get into the US twice. Similar to things going on in our country today.
I cannot wait to watch Niki’s future projects on the big screen:
Watching this important movie was turned into an even more incredible experience by being able to chat with these wonderful women who shared the details of how everything came together. This is a great historical movie that everyone should watch! And here is some behind the scenes action just to entice you: