Arts & Entertainment Editor
New Zealand director Nikola “Niki” Caro is entering 2017 with a hefty plate on her hands. In addition to directing a new Netflix original series, “Anne,” based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables, and Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of “Mulan,” she’s also taking on another Disney film called “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”
The latter production, based on the Diane Ackerman novel of the same name, stars Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh as Antonina and Jan Żabiński, who ran the Warsaw Zoo during the German occupation of Poland in World War II. During the Germans’ siege of Warsaw in 1939, the zoo was badly damaged by aerial bombs and many of the animals inside were killed, though a few escaped. Some of the rarest surviving animals were stolen by notorious Nazi zoologist Dr. Lutz Heck and shipped to German zoos, while others deemed “less valuable” were shot, even reportedly hunted by some Gestapo officers for sport.
The looting of the Warsaw Zoo left the majority of its cages empty as the Nazis quickly moved on to containing Warsaw’s Jewish population in the infamously cruel conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto (at one point residents were only allowed 187 calories a day). Soon after, the Żabińskis became heavily involved in the Polish Underground Movement, using the remotest of their zoo’s vacant cages to shelter hundreds of Jews hiding from Nazi cruelty, sometimes smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto itself, and occasionally transferring them to other safehouses outside the city.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” focuses on the story of Antonina Żabiński, whose experience is underreported in most accounts aside from the original novel when compared to her husband Jan’s. While Jan was out of the house, Antonina had to stay home and care for their son Ryś, their “guests,” and the few animals that remained in the zoo, all while Nazis remained stationed at the zoo property (but didn’t enter the house). Alongside “Anne” and “Mulan,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife” rounds out a trio of woman-centered movies directed by Niki Caro that are slated for release by 2018.
Earlier this month, Niki Caro sat down for a conference call with several college journalists, including The Bottom Line, and answered questions about her upcoming film. Some memorable examples are included below:
On what appealed to her about the book:
I had not read “The Zookeeper’s Wife” before I was approached. In fact, that was part of the attraction to it. Antonina Żabiński’s story had kind of fallen through the seams of history and I was amazed, when I read the script, to learn that it was a true story. As to what drew me, I guess I was really compelled by the idea of a different kind of Holocaust [that was] very exotic, very domestic, and very, very female in its focus. I was also really inspired by Antonina’s courage and her care and her compassion, because she sheltered Jews at great risk to herself and her family, but for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.
In sheltering them she not only created refuge and shelter, but she also created a home. She had to overcome her natural shyness, because she was much more comfortable with animals than with people. But 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.
And ultimately, I think, with hope. And this is kind of ultimately what drew me to tell a Holocaust story, because it was so different and I felt that this time while, hopefully honoring the millions that died, a movie that 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.
On directing “The Zookeeper’s Wife” as a non-Jew:
[I had] no concerns at all beyond doing it right and doing it well. Honoring so many souls that perished and shining a light on this very ordinary couple. I mean, they weren’t necessarily extraordinary. They were very ordinary. Their choice to do what they did, for no other reason than it was the right thing to do, is incredibly moving to me and inspiring and, quite honestly, very pertinent for these times.
On adding personality and depth to the film’s characters beyond the script:
With this movie I was very, very involved in the script. I worked with Angela Workman over a period of drafts. The script was very good to begin with, but it wasn’t yet reflecting the movie that it would be. So Angela and I worked together really closely, really successfully — I enjoyed it very, very much — to get the movie onto the page.
The biggest area of course, is casting actors. And as soon as you start to cast, you open up a whole different world of inspiration for me, so as I begin casting I frequently find actors who can bring so much more than I ever dared hope. And a really good example in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is Shira Haas who plays Urszula the girl from the ghetto.
Now that character of Urszula was something that I brought to the screenplay, something that I suggested [was] that one of the people that Antonina would shelter would be a child emblematic of all children who suffer so much in war.
Urszula’s case had really become quite animal, given the violence that she had experienced. So for Antonina this was a way of dealing with a human being in the same way as she might deal with an animal in this gentle, quiet, compassionate way she draws Urszula out. Both Shira and Jessica’s performances draw [it] out.
On the importance of portraying the Holocaust with authenticity:
It carries a tremendous responsibility, to portray any real story authentically onscreen, but this moment in history particularly so. You know, when I began I had no idea how relevant this story would become. I was just really consumed with doing my work as well as I could, with bringing people to the story that could share my really high ideals and aspirations to the filmmaking, and bringing in people for who may have a personal connection. A number of the supporting cast actually came from Israel, and they carried the story, of course, in their DNA.
So for all of us, it was a tremendous responsibility and a story for which we were absolutely prepared to work to and beyond our best in the service of doing it incredibly well. Let alone the fact that there have been, you know, a handful of great Holocaust movies made. I’ve got to say, you know, I felt the pressure also as a filmmaker to approach this material from a slightly different angle so I could, in my small way, bring something fresh to a genre that many, many people are aware of.
On what draws her to true stories:
I began really early on in my career with telling stories that were either true, or based in truth, or had some central truth to them. And “Whale Rider” is probably the best example of a story that was not my culture but was very, very important culturally to the Maori people.
I take that responsibility really, really seriously and I work very, very hard to serve the material as well as I can. And it, for me, takes me right out of it. It takes my ego right out of it. I literally serve the story and try to meet the need of the story and bring it to an audience that I know from experience will respond well to a story if the story is true.
Now with “Whale Rider,” it was so interesting to me that I could commit to telling a story as authentically and specifically as possible about a tiny part of the world, a pretty much unknown culture in the world, and then have that movie reach so many people.
On if her approach to directing Mulan will differ from other movies she’s directed:
Although the canvas is a lot bigger, my approach doesn’t change at all. I really value the writing very much. I tend to work with writers for a long time before the script goes into production. I take casting very, very, very seriously, as I do my role in communicating the story to an audience. So, I imagine I will do it exactly the same but on a vastly bigger scale.
On if she has learned different lessons from the character of Antonina than from other women characters in her films:
Yes. It is her softness, because 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. Which is, in a lot of cases, a fantasy of what a strong woman is.
I’m interested, particularly in this project, with exploring characters that are terribly strong but soft at the same time. And Antonina was very much a woman of her time. A traditional wife: quite subservient to her husband. They’re a great team.
He was the brains of the zoo and she was excellently the heart. But her strength is in her softness and her gentleness and her compassion and her love and her journey over the course of this film from a woman that can barely utter a sentence at a cocktail party, she’s so ill at ease with humans, to somebody that will willingly shelter 300 Holocaust survivors in her home and at great risk to herself.
Whilst always remaining the soft, kind, compassionate soul. That is the essence of strength for me. I’m very proud to be supporting Jessica and Antonina herself and bringing the image of female strength to the world right now.
On the biggest challenge in portraying an accurate yet subdued Warsaw Ghetto:
[The] biggest challenge is actually just portraying it accurately and well, in a movie of this nature. I think for me, it was portraying it emotionally. And a lot of war movies focus on the horror, but for me, one of the key things was experiencing the Warsaw Ghetto through the eyes of Jan and his son.
The first time we go into the ghetto during the movie, we see it from their truck, from the zoo truck. And it’s Jan that takes us through, and that actor Johan Heldenbergh was so emotionally open. When we experience it through his eyes, when he says, “It’s worse than I could have possibly imagined,” that is enough.
That for me, so powerful that we can experience it through his performance, through his horror at seeing Urszula taken away by the German soldiers. Children that have to eat scraps of food, you know, to make soup. The deprivation, the poverty, the sickness that comes, we experience it all through Jan Żabiński.
And that’s a way of communicating the Holocaust, for me, in a very emotional way that really made the scene for a movie like this.