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‘The Zookeepers Wife’ wages war in Warsaw

Director Niki Caro tells the story of unsung heroes.

Jessica+Chastain+stars+as+Antonina+Zabinski+in+director+Niki+Caro%27s+THE+ZOOKEEPER%27S+WIFE%2C+a+Focus+Features+release.%0ACredit%3A+Anne+Marie+Fox+%2F+Focus+Features
Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro's THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro's THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

Anne Marie Fox

Anne Marie Fox

Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro's THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

James Conley, Staff Writer

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Some people see injustice and stop at nothing to correct it, even if it means putting themselves and their livelihood in jeopardy. This is the tale behind “Whale Rider” director, Niki Caro’s latest film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”

The film tells the true story the Żabiński Family, successful stewards of the Warsaw Zoo in Poland. Zookeeper Jan Żabiński, his wife Antonina and their son Ryszard, don’t just shelter animals, but hundreds of Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust.

Diane Ackerman first published the book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” in 2007, using Antonina’s unpublished diary.  

Before being approached to direct the film adaptation, Caro had not read the book and was excited about taking the challenge of telling the story.

“It was so different and felt that this time, while hopefully honoring the millions that died, a movie could focus on a few hundred that survived and the extraordinary circumstances of these survivals would be a nice thing to put into the world,” Caro said. “The biggest challenge, besides portraying it accurately and well, was portraying it emotionally. A lot of war movies focus on the horror, but one of the key things was experiencing the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of Jan and his son.”

The New Zealand native has directed several award-winning films and television shows and said she enjoys telling true stories.

Caro was inspired by Antonina’s courage and compassion, who sheltered Jewish refugees at great risk to herself and her family for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.

“She was much more comfortable with animals than with people,” Caro said. “She used her gift to tend to these damaged Holocaust survivors and created an environment for them that was made bearable with art and music and tenderness and understanding.”    

Jessica Chastain, Oscar nominee for “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Help,” will play Antonina Żabińska. According to Caro, Chastain was so committed to the role that she learned to play piano for the film, including some very difficult musical pieces.

“Jessica was everybody’s first choice for the role and pretty much said yes right away. Jessica loves animals; she is genuinely an animal whisperer,” Caro said. “This was obvious every time we were on set.”

Caro is particularly interested in this project because it offers the opportunity to explore characters that are terribly strong, but soft at the same time.

“I think a lot of people still confuse female strength in cinema with women that are really kind of badass and outwardly strong, kind of, like guys in girls’ bodies,” Caro said. “Which is, in a lot of cases, a fantasy of what a strong woman is.”

It was very compelling and exciting, she said, to make a war movie that has a significant difference from other war films.

“War is experienced by everybody. It’s not just experienced by men. It is interesting to see a war movie that focused on the female experience,” Caro said. “It is certainly true that this is a Holocaust movie all about women and children and animals.  But women, children and animals experience war also.”

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” had its world release on March 8 in Warsaw, Poland and is set to be released by Focus Features in the U.S. on March 31.

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