The project made it to the big screen after a decade as all concerned took inspiration from the real-life woman whose story they would be telling.
Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) directs The Zookeeper’s Wife from a screenplay by Angela Workman, adapted from Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book of the same name which was based on Antonina’s diaries.
The time is 1939. The place is Poland, homeland of Antonina (portrayed by Ms. Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh, of The Broken Circle Breakdown). Devoted to each other, the couple thrive as personal and professional partners; the Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. With reserves of energy, Antonina rises every day to tend to both her family and their menagerie, as the gates to the majestic zoo open in welcome…
…until the entrance is slammed shut and the zoo is crippled in an attack as the entire country is invaded by the Germans. Stunned, the couple is forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Golden Globe Award nominee Daniel Brühl of Captain America: Civil War). Heck envisions a new, selective breeding program for the zoo.
Antonina and Jan fight back on their own terms, and covertly begin working with the Resistance – realizing that their zoo’s abandoned animal cages and underground tunnels, originally designed to safeguard animal life, can now secretly safeguard human life. As the couple puts into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, Antonina places herself and even her children at great risk.
In 2007, producer Diane Miller Levin was given Diane Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife, as a gift by her husband. Levin was so enthralled with the recounting of strength of character that she read the book in just one night, “sitting on my stairwell. I was utterly struck by it. It felt like too important a story not to tell.” Her producing partner, Emmy Award winner Robbie Rowe Tollin, read the book and was equally inspired by it. Together, they formed Rowe Miller Productions with a commitment to see the book adapted into a major motion picture.
Ackerman’s nonfiction book drew on the wartime diaries of Antonina Żabińska while also providing in-depth research to place Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński, in the wider historical context of Polish resistance to Nazi oppression during WWII.
Robbie Rowe Tollin states, “What sets this apart from other WWII histories is that it is an intimate story between a husband and wife. We were fascinated at how it was about a family fighting to keep their everyday life, and marriage, healthy amidst a war.”
The State of Israel would later honor the Żabińskis as Righteous Among the Nations, but the couple remained modest about their achievements. Yet they had exemplified courage and compassion, sheltering over 300 people at their beloved Warsaw Zoo, which had sustained damage during Germany’s invasion of Poland, keeping these guests safe and surviving the Holocaust; saved from the Warsaw Ghetto, the rescuees were later sent on escape routes to freedom. A small number of their guests are still alive today.
Levin comments, “This story celebrates life in all forms. Diane Ackerman showed us a world where humans, animals, the spirit of all living things, are valued. Specifically, it’s about the heroism of a woman living in a time of unmitigated fear and destruction. Antonina’s instincts were both scientific and spiritual, truly a rare combination. She knew how to spot a predator and how to defuse their aggression, but she also knew how to tend to a wounded animal and how to heal them. Overcoming her natural shyness, she applied her innate understanding of animal psychology to humans, and so was able to help even the most damaged escapees to heal and feel hope for the future.
“Robbie and I were floored at how Antonina answered a call to action and accepted so many challenges: hiding people in abandoned animal cages and underground tunnels, sacrificing to feed the guests and bolstering their spirits with music – all the while putting her life and the lives of her children on the line. We were moved by how Antonina and Jan fought against hate and for survival, no matter the cost to themselves. The book eloquently depicts their bravery, and we wanted to translate that into a film.”
The duo brought The Zookeeper’s Wife to the attention of Mike Tollin, an Emmy and Peabody Award winner with an accomplished track record of making movies about real-life heroes. He optioned the book for a partnership between his Tollin Productions and their Rowe Miller Productions. He comments, “The book was a revelation. The chance to tell such an incredibly powerful and largely unknown story seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Producer Kim Zubick, at that time President of Production at Tollin Productions, rounded out the quartet as they worked at selecting a screenwriter and developing the adaptation. Zubick remarks, “I felt in my soul that Antonina’s story needed to be told. Wars are not just fought on the front lines; here was someone battling to hold on to what is good in people. Her story could inspire all of us to do the same.
“I knew we needed to find the right voice to tell Antonina’s story, and it was immediately clear that this person was Angela Workman, our screenwriter. Angela brought her own passion to the table; it was on the strength of her faith in the material and in our collaboration that she came up with a powerful treatment, which gave us a strong foundation to build from.”
Workman notes, “As a writer, so much of this story surprised me; there were so many things I didn’t know. There was an ‘underground railroad’ in Warsaw. There was an extraordinary effort by Gentiles to get people out of the Ghetto. The zoo became a way station in that effort; Jews were hidden inside the cages, in the underground animal tunnels, and inside the Żabiński house itself. This was an intensely dangerous act because German soldiers swarmed all over that zoo; their armaments were housed there – and in occupied Poland the punishment for hiding Jews was death to the rescuer and to his/her family. Antonina and Jan could have fled, but instead they made the decision to stay, to save lives, right under the noses of the Nazis.
“A zoo setting for these acts of courage is unusual, and beautifully cinematic. But it also makes us think about the idea of animal instincts, human and non-human. Who are the beasts, really? Life in a zoo illuminates the core idea of how Hitler would ultimately be defeated: you can’t control nature. The world turns forward, nature survives. Animal life survives. It will outlive a despot.”
Robbie Rowe Tollin says, “All four of us felt that Angela was a master at historical adaptations. What we found was that she was equally passionate about Antonina’s character and the material.”
Levin reports, “Angela wrangled so many facts and details. She centralized the story with imagery while also making it come alive through the beauty of her words.
“Over this past decade we developed amazing partnerships, as it truly does take a village to make a movie.”
Producer Jeff Abberley acquired the rights to the project in late 2009 through his Scion Films banner, having been introduced to it by Workman’s agent Sandra Lucchesi, who became something of a “fairy godmother” to the project. He muses, “We had developed something of a reputation for helping to get some very complex projects made over the years, and instinctively I immediately knew that we could bring this wonderful project to the screen. Any movie is difficult to make. But a female-driven drama set against the Holocaust was too great to pass up. Here was a chance to tell an inspiring true story – about a family that extends itself further and further, both in risk and embrace.
“I only had two conditions before taking the project on: first, Angela had to write it, and second, we had to get the cooperation of the surviving children, Rys and Teresa. It took six months of careful negotiation but that was worth it.”
He adds, “From the very first meeting with director Niki Caro, it was abundantly clear that she knew exactly how to make this movie. She understood what was important in the telling of Antonina and Jan’s story, and what was less relevant. The confidence that she had from the outset emboldened all of us. Her mastery of storytelling and the lyricism in her approach – not least with children and animals – mapped out the emotional heart of The Zookeeper’s Wife.”
Zubick notes, “One of the first things Niki said was, ‘I am not interested in making a war movie’ – which was fun to recall as I watched her take great delight in overseeing fires and explosions during filming – but, rather, her vision was that the story should be told from a more feminine point of view, through Antonina’s instinct to safeguard the guests’ spirits and try to preserve that which makes us human. With Niki’s input, Angela did another draft of the script and it soared.”
Caro clarifies, “The first 20 pages of the initial draft were some of the best I’d ever read in a script, and these went unchanged for the final film. I was lucky to have Angela as our screenwriter; she knew the source material so well that together we could envision what the movie should be. Diane’s book was a resource for the texture of the film, as she had researched and recorded everything so poetically.
“I embraced how this story was very exotic, very domestic, and very feminine. Above all, it was an opportunity to explore what makes us human – and, humane.”
Producer Jamie Patricof remarks, “It’s a unique story with a title that doesn’t automatically connotate ‘a World War II film’ and that does pique people’s curiosity. Who could have imagined a miracle like this happening during that time?”
Patricof joined the project after Caro and Workman had begun working together, and found that “Niki both knows exactly what she wants and is incredibly collaborative. She was always moving to bring authenticity into every aspect of telling this story.”
Levin adds, “Niki was able to see Antonina in a new light, which people’s survival stories could be dramatized, and what the pulse of the zoo would be. If you’ve seen her other movies, you know that she zeroes in on intimate and delicate moments in her film that she puts together like lace, but she also plunges into moments of conflict which test her characters. That certainly described Antonina’s life, which we needed to show.
“We didn’t hire Niki as our director because she was a woman; we hired her because she was the right person for this movie, being both pragmatic and creative.”
Workman remarks, “Adapting any book into a screenplay is a challenge. With nonfiction, you are confronted with names and statistics. But I knew that Antonina was the engine for the story, and so I had to build a storyline that centered on her, and that moved the film forward over the course of many years.
“After I met with Niki, we would communicate via phone and e-mail. She would float ideas to me, I would think about them, respond in writing; it was like a quiet dance over the miles. Niki has a gentle way about her but is just so astute with her ideas. We had a shorthand almost immediately. Working with her was a collaboration and a joy.”
Caro adds, “At the script stage, I was always thinking about the tension of being caged – whether as an animal or human – and the visual storytelling was colored by that. It meant we shot through iron bars a lot, which is more difficult than I ever imagined…
“What we always came back to was the truth of the Holocaust, and how it was impacting the world and in particular this community. We researched documentary evidence on the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto; the children, the starvation, the poverty, the sickness, the overcrowding…somehow you have to express it in a way that people can handle. There can be no flinching from it.”