Similar to how Antonina and Jan Zabinski interacted during World War II with their zoo animals up close and personal, actors Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh engage with animals on a movie set much the same. In the newly released flick, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” this real-life story details how these Warsaw zookeepers used their positions to hide Jews in a zoo where the animals cohabitate with the residents.
Never Work with Children or Animals?
Ask any actor who has worked with children or animals and most will confirm the wisdom of the now infamous quote of W.C. Fields who instructed fellow actors to “never work with children or animals.” Perhaps things have changed since the early days of the Cinema, but not only does Jessica Chastain disagree with that philosophy, she feels just the opposite. She welcomed the opportunity to work with animals,
“Antonina didn’t want animals to be directed,” Chastain says. Likewise, the actress wanted an environment where she could act in accordance with the animals real-life behavior, and capture it on film as such. “I would act around them. It wasn’t that we lead them; they were leading us.”
Some actors would feel off-balanced taking cues from animals, but Chastain found it exhilarating. “When you act with an animal, you don’t know what they’re going to do,” she says. “You can’t plan anything or show up with an expectation; you have to just be open to your scene partner, to what they’re presenting and figure out how to work around it.”
Similarly, the Zabinskis lived on the grounds and their daily lives were intertwined with those of the animals in their care. Historically, their son had a pet skunk, lion cubs snoozed on the Zabinskis’ bed like puppies, and an ostrich followed Antonina as she did her morning rounds on her bicycle.
That human-animal bond gave Chastain insight as to how to portray Antonina. “She believed all living creatures were equal; it didn’t matter what species you were,” Chastain noted. “When making a film about that bond between living creatures, it was so important to me to try to create that bond with the animals themselves while shooting.”
Story that needs telling . . .
Dissimilar to the global notoriety of Anne Frank of the same era, the life of the Zabinskis was relatively unknown to the Western World. They cared about others compassionately, not knowing if their story would ever reach beyond their borders. They liked to share the rewarding experiences of their animals with the hundreds of displaced Jews they hid at the zoo — most of whom Jan smuggled out of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto in his truck over time.
A refugee herself who fled to Russia from Poland as a young woman, Antonina found the comfort she needed in “the squawks and roars that echoed through the zoo" — and she wanted to share that joy with others.
“She was able to create her safe space, her sanctuary, when she got there,” Chastain says. “So for her, animals helped heal her trauma of what she went through as a child, and she knows through that interspecies' love she could introduce those people who are suffering to the healing powers of all living creatures.”
The Warsaw Zoo was well ahead of its time in providing natural habitats for its residents. Landscaped like a lush garden, it was initially a world famous showplace, a haven for both people and animals. Then the Nazis invaded with their tanks and bombs, with a horrific xenophobic disregard for mankind and animals.
It’s a well-known fact that drunken Gestapo agents shot animals in their cages for sport. In the book, The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman, when the Zabinski son’s pig was snatched away and butchered, the family endured nonetheless and managed by one clever ploy after another, to remain steadfast to the cause of rescuing Jews. Yet through all the fear and deprivation, the book and the movie accurately depict the spirit of compassion that man has for his fellow man and beast.