The cast of The Zookeeper’s Wife gathered in Los Angeles for the premiere of the film about Antonina and her husband Jan, who become heroes to hundreds during World War II, saving them from the Warsaw Ghettos. Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas, and Diane Ackerman who wrote the book were all in attendance.
Talking about the film, Chastain said, “I think a big film of this film is compassion in the sense of fear. Fear of the other. Fear of other countries and fear of refugees. Antonina didn’t have that. She was willing to open her doors to strangers to help them.” Talking about the compassion of the character she plays, Chastain said, “She (Antonina) thought all living creatures were people. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what species you are, she saw everyone as a miracle and I loved that.”
When Antonina and Jan realize that the tunnels that once safeguarded their animals can now safeguard humans, the couple opens their zoo to protecting Polish Jews from being persecuted at the hands of the Nazis, thus becoming heroes. Chastain talked about what compelled her to saying yes to this film, “There are so many themes in this film. We’ve had so many films in the past that have focused on the male perspective of war, and the male point of view, but it’s very rare to explore what happens to women, children, and animals during the war.” She added, “Niki (Caro) also explores what does it mean to be in a cage. The Warsaw Ghetto is a cage.” She went on to say, “Antonina is a hero because of her compassion. You can be heroic and not use violence. We need to celebrate those heroes that use love.”
Her biggest surprise came when she was researching the role of Antonina, “I assumed she would wear pants. When I met with her daughter at the Warsaw Zoo, she told me her whole life that she never saw her mother in a pair of pants. I learned a lot about women in 1939. Especially in the relationship with the husband in that the husband was the head of the household. When men have gone off to fight, women have stepped forward and joined the workforce, and they become the head of the household.” When their husbands come home after, it’s a new social dynamic and our film explores that. When they meet at the end, they’re equals and their love is deeper for it.”
Shira Haas who plays Urszula, a young girl who’s rescued by Jan, has gone through a traumatic experience said, “I’ve seen a lot of amazing holocaust films and read a lot of stories, but this one is so magical and special because it’s about faith and hope in a place and time when there wasn’t any.” Haas added, “You can choose good no matter what.”
Haas says, “Her character was so close to my heart. She is the symbol of hope in this film. She starts off as a wounded animal and she opens up, she talks and sings.” Haas praised her co-star Chastain saying, “She’s a hard worker. It’s so addicting to see someone who is so committed and hard-working, you become like that.”
Diane Ackerman who wrote the 2007 book was thrilled that people are finally seeing the story of The Żabińskis. “It’s a story that needs to be known. There are a lot of people alive now who don’t know anyone who was in World War II. They don’t know about the holocaust except in books, and they need to understand what happened. What’s at stake if we’re not careful about racism and prejudice, and what’s at stake, but also the different kinds of heroism that ordinary people perform.”
Ackerman first came across the story accidentally because of her interest in horses. She was reading about the zookeepers one day, “They were bringing in endangered animals into their house, and that led to how they were also taking care of endangered people.” She went on to say, “I was surprised by the extent and devotion of the Polish Underground. Very few people realized that there were hundreds and thousands who didn’t have to risk their lives, but felt it was their moral duty to do so.”
The Zookeeper’s Wife Opens This Friday.