Last month, I had the fantastic opportunity to attend a screening and Q&A with the actress Jessica Chastain and Director Niki Caro in NYC, for the newly released movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife (released in the U.S. March 31st).
Before attending the event, I did a little background research, and found out the film was based on the book, The Zookeeper’s Wife, written by Diana Ackerman, which was inspired by the diaries of Antonina Żabiński. She with her husband Jan, were the zookeepers at the Warsaw zoo, who in an amazing feat of heroism sheltered Jews, many rescued from the Warsaw ghettos by Jan himself, during WWII.
For the screening, I along with other bloggers and press correspondents were invited to view the film before its release, at the Dolby 88 Theatre.
As the movie played and the story unfolded, a wide range of emotions hit me. I’m not usually an overly emotional person when it comes to movie watching, but this one really pulled at my heartstrings. There are so many incredible parts in the movie that will make you smile, cry and appreciate those amazing individuals, in particular the women featured in the film. The vision and direction by Niki Caro and the performances in particular by Jessica Chastain, playing Antonina, and the young actress Shira Haas, who plays a Jewish girl named Ursula, were phenomenal.
“There are many ways that someone can be brave and strong. I think that Antonina shows that compassion is an incredible form of strength.”
After the movie, we made our way to JW Marriot Essex House, for a round table interview with Jessica Chastain and Niki Caro. A few of my favorite questions from the Q&A were the following (please note there are spoilers below):
PRESS: Hi. I’m Krista from the New York City Talon. And you deal with a very heavy theme, with the girl who was raped by the two officers. And I was wondering if you can speak a little bit about filming that, and creating the picture, and also Jessica, about what it was like to work with the young actress.
NIKI CARO: Yeah. 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.
This storyline, involving Ursula, (which I found out later is not in the book), was the part in the movie that hit me the hardest. Knowing that this was probably a very common occurrence during WWII, is unbearable to think about. And yet, there is a part of me, after contemplating, that’s realized how important it is for us to not forget about this war. Emotional and moving films like, The Zookeeper’s Wife, help to keep these stories alive. By reading books and watching films like these, we celebrate those brave individuals in the past, in particular the many unheard voices of the women who bravely fought for a world order that was almost lost. After all is said and done, all I can say is please go see this movie; it is one that will stay with you for a very long time. This month, I’ll be reading the newly released book, with the movie tie in cover, and looking forward to comparing and contrasting the film to the book.
Synopsis: 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.
Director: Niki Caro (“North Country,” “Whale Rider,” “McFarland, USA”)
Writer: Angela Workman (“War Bride”), based on the nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, and Daniel Brühl
Running Time: 126 minutes
Antonina Featurette: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2xTECtyiB8
**A very special thanks to Focus Features for the fabulous opportunity to attend the screening in NYC.**