Would you have done what Antonina Zabinski did?She is the title character in “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the true story of a woman played by Jessica Chastain who sheltered Jews and resistance fighters in the Warsaw Zoo right under the Nazis’ noses during World War II.“That’s the big question of the film: What would you do if something like this happened today?” says Chastain about the film, which opens Friday. She opened her doors to strangers.” “So many of us would immediately jump to, ‘Of course, I would help others.’ But to do that is to trivialize the danger. Antonina sacrificed the safety of her children to be compassionate.
To prepare for the film, Chastain talked with the couples’ daughter, Teresa, who was born during the war.“She told me things that weren’t even in the book about Antonina,” says the actress, who also visited Auschwitz “because though I had studied concentration camps, I wanted to know what it meant to be on the ground.” As the war went on, much of the burden for hiding refugees and members of the Polish underground fell to Antonina after Jan joined the resistance and was captured in the Warsaw uprising of 1944. After the war, the state of Israel honored the Zabinskis for their efforts.
Chastain notes there are many films about World War II and the Holocaust, but most are from a male perspective.“We’ve had many films that focus on the darkness and the violence and murder, but we’ve never had a film that focuses on the light and the goodness in people during the time of war — and the feminine and the compassionate.” The actress credits Caro for that. So getting “The Zookeeper’s Wife” to the screen was a slog. The director was first approached about the project some seven years ago.
The film by Niki Caro is from Diane Ackerman’s book, which is based on the diary of Antonina Zabinski, who, along with her husband, Jan Zabinski (played by Johan Heldenbergh), had been running the zoo before the war.The Zabinskis had until then led a fairly idyllic life caring for their son and the animals. Secretly, though, they began to hide Jews and even smuggled them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Some of the animals roamed the city until they were shot down.A Nazi zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), took the best of the surviving creatures for his selective-breeding program, but the Zabinskis persuaded the Germans to use the zoo as a pig farm to provide food for Nazi soldiers. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they ruthlessly bombed the city of Warsaw, including the zoo.