Producer Diane Miller Levin, who a decade ago began the process of bringing the true story of THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE to film audiences, describes its message for today...
“It is never too late for acts of compassion and it is never too late to act. One person can make a difference in the world.”
Director Niki Caro certainly agrees, as she dedicated herself to bring to life the story of the Warsaw zookeeper and his wife, the esteemed zoologist Jan Zabinski and animal whisperer Antonina Zabinska, and their humane rescue of over 300 Jews during World War II. To make this come about, she brought on Production Designer Suzie Davies, Set Decorator Charlotte Dirickx SDSA* and several other top department heads who also are female. Jessica Chastain, who plays Antonina, noted and appreciated the overall POV. “When you have both genders represented, then you have a healthier point of view. The energy is great, you all are working together as a community, and everyone is participating in the exchange of ideas. You don't feel a hierarchy...It's a very collaborative experience, and it's been heaven for me...there are no strange power plays or egos. We know how rare making this kind of film is.”
We were delighted to talk with Director Niki Caro about the film and the filmmaking experience...
SET DECOR: What a gorgeous film this is! And that does not detract from the strength of the story...
Director Niki Caro: Oh, thank you. That means more than you know, because my whole intention with all of the filmmaking was to work in a very feminine way, but to make very strong material in a feminine way. I think often femininity is equated with weakness, and Antonina shows us that you can be very soft and very strong at the same time.
SET DECOR: The idea of sanctuary...
The zoo, itself, was a personal sanctuary, an animal sanctuary, a human sanctuary...Can we talk about that?
Caro: Yes, absolutely. When I first became aware of the script, I was really compelled by this seeming contradiction: What is a cage and what is a refuge? Or a sanctuary. And the fact that Antonina was much better with animals than with people—you see her in the cocktail party at the beginning of the movie and she’s barely able to make a sentence, and yet in the next scene with the elephant, she’s absolutely fearless. So she brought her instinct to protect and nurture animals to human refugees and created a sanctuary for them. It’s very beautiful, what she did, and very true.
SET DECOR: Yes, and when these people came to her, they were stripped of the artifice that she had been dealing with, and there’s more of that natural interaction, as she would have with the animals.
Caro: That’s right, the instinct to protect and to nurture...profoundly female. And the way she created sanctuary for these poor traumatized refugees, to give them music and art and luxury, as much as she could—from midnight until dawn they could dwell in a version of a normal life.
SET DECOR: It was very surprising to see. One would expect that they could never be able to come upstairs, at risk of being seen...and then when they did literally come up from below ground, it was presented in such a cultured, human way. That was unexpected and lovely.
Caro: Well, Jan and Antonina were very cosmopolitan, as was Warsaw at the time. It was the Paris of the north, a very sophisticated and cosmopolitan place. And they, Jan and Antonina, socialized very much among the artistic and intelligentsia. This is what surprised me when I got to deeply research the movie, was how much Poland lost when it lost its Jewish population. They lost their intellectuals. They lost their artists. They lost their scientists and their historians. Poland lost so much. And Jan and Antonina kept those things alive in the sanctuary of their home.
SET DECOR: Speaking of their home, the Bauhaus villa situated on the zoo grounds! You were able to visit the actual site...
Caro: Yes! It all begins and ends with Suzie Davies, the Production Designer...
SET DECOR: Yes, and Charlotte...
Caro: AND Charlotte...oh my god! I’ve never worked with a set decorator like her. She goes as deep as I do and nobody’s ever done that! But it was a total thrill. We went to the villa, and it’s interesting, the Zabinskis were the managers of the zoo, not the owners of the zoo, and yet they commissioned the villa—a Bauhaus villa. That shows the kind of people that they were.
And so we re-created the villa, absolutely. If you go to the Warsaw Zoo, you will find that villa. We just flipped it 180 degrees on our set, and our working set was the upstairs, so all of Jan and Antonina’s bedroom and the terrace, little Rys’s [their young son Ryszard] room. That was all on location. Their downstairs rooms, we did a little bit in and out of windows on location, but the rest, including the basement, was in studio.
SET DECOR: Some of those set details, for instance the wallpaper – the navy silk in the bedroom and then the curtains, the draperies with lovely subtle design...
Caro: Yes! Suzie and Charlotte going to Poland on weekends to flea markets to find all of those lovely things and props! If you see piles of papers, they are all from the ‘30s.
Trust me, there was nothing that wasn’t completely authentic on that set. Nothing. And for me, the level of detail, the level of care and sensitivity and the work that those two did—that their whole art department did—to the point where in Jan and Antonina’s room, they polished the floor with orange oil, so it smelled incredible.
It was just every essential detail that we were aware of, which is something that I had asked for. I had spoken about the sensuality of the filmmaking, that it was going to be all about the wallpaper and it was going to be all about the texture of fur and skin and pillows and upholstery, and everything needed to feel like you wanted to touch it.
SET DECOR: And that’s exactly how it is. One can chose appropriate fabrics and wallpaper and re-create something, but Suzie and Charlotte go so much deeper with it. They add meaning and depth with the types of textures and the choices of designs...and the little pieces, whether it’s the stuffed animal toy in Rys’s room...
Caro: Which I have, by the way! And there were other little toys that I have as well, that were made by the mother of one of our Czech seamstresses who had brought these little toys in. Our costume designer Bina [Sabine Daigeler] loved them so much, she gave them to the art department to put in the set and the art department then gave them to me and they are now in my bedroom.
This is feminine filmmaking, you know. It really is. To the marrow, it’s female. And you should have seen the Hallelujah moment when we found the wallpaper, when Suzie introduced us to the wallpaper. It was so swooning, and I include the cinematographer Andrij, honorary female, in the swoon!
SET DECOR: It sets the tone, it sets the mood...the attention to detail from the set decorator point of view is not only for camera but also to help the actor and the director with the character and the storytelling.
Caro: Absolutely, profoundly.
SET DECOR: Here we had beautiful, subtle touches, such as how Antonina never gives up when Jan is missing and she keeps placing a flower in a vase on the bedside table everyday...sometimes it’s only a weed, but there’s always that symbol of hope.
Caro: That’s right.
SET DECOR: And then we go from this sanctuary to another version downstairs...the basement, which evolves from a storage facility and animal infirmary to becoming a human sanctuary.
Caro: Yes, we tracked from the hospital part of the zoo where they would keep the sick animals, very bare, with just hay there, to as Antonina brings in more guests, it becomes a laundry, a schoolroom, there are bedrooms, there is a lot of life down there. And you see just how much has accumulated when at the end of the movie they have to suddenly get out and they have to get rid of it...
SET DECOR: And then, once again, all the individual details defining each of those people, in terms of their belongings, what they have there with them.
Caro: Yes! The actors were so appreciative of the fact that anywhere they looked, 360 degrees, we were in their world. It wasn’t full of trucks and equipment...It was period 360. And they found that really inspiring, really, really helpful for the work that they had to do.
SET DECOR: Suzie said that the basement “was rendered a dark red to make it feel more womb-like or like a beating heart, because it’s where lives are being saved and sustained, first animals and then people.”
Caro: That’s right. And then the drawings on the wall, which I put them through a bit, or actually a lot, because I so clearly had the vision for what it needed! It had to have animal heads on human bodies and be Chagall-like. They had the entire art department on it, and we all knew it when we finally had it. It’s such a beautiful part of the movie...it dances. And it has life, as the villa had life. There is animal and human life that can’t and won’t be eradicated, all the life of Jewish and Polish cultures that managed to survive and to thrive in this house despite the worst happening outside
SET DECOR: And it was wonderful as a part of the story you told, to see it grow from the first very injured child to this ongoing mural that extends into the cages and the tunnels.
Suzie had mentioned that when showing the cages that were later used to house people, you always tried to keep at least a door open to show captivity but also freedom.
And speaking of cages, we have to mention the zoo itself and all the beautiful enclosures made for it. The opening scene is just so delightful and glorious.
Caro: We shot that in preproduction! I put a tremendous amount of stress on Suzie and the construction department. There was no zoo there, or villa. It was just an abandoned, neglected exhibition park in the middle of the city of Prague. And we needed to shoot and prep immediately because of the weather. So we couldn’t risk it. And we only had it in that beautiful, pristine state for 2 days before we had to bomb it. So I shot it, and the next time I came back, it had already been destroyed. And I was so sad. It’s quite subtle, but the fact that beauty is destroyed is very much the story there. It’s one of the stories of war time. It’s not the most important story, because human lives being taken is the most important story. But beauty is taken away, too.
And I think the fact that Antonina was so valiant in keeping beauty alive within the confines of the villa and the basement, it was a kind of heroism, a feminine heroism that I really admire and I really understand.
SET DECOR: And the counter to that, of course was the ghetto, the largest cage of all. 1.3 miles of confined, caged humans.
Caro: Look, I almost have no words how deeply disturbing and heartbreaking that place was. All of the team went very deep into the research and it was very touching for us to go that deep and really, really commit to the amount of disease and dysfunction and violence contained in those walls.
In terms of shooting it, I wanted this movie to feel very personal...to feel like a contemporary movie, not like, you know, another historical Holocaust movie. So the way we experience the ghetto for the first time is through Jan’s eyes, and he has his child there with him. So it’s all the more shocking that you see his child at his side. And so it’s shot, I think, I hope, in a very lyrical way that attends to the horror and the heartbreak. I didn’t want to be graphic with it, but be very feeling with it.
SET DECOR: Did that shoot early or later in the schedule? Were you able to go back to happier sets?
Caro: We shot all the ghetto scenes in the third week. Bitterly cold. The driving rain was absolutely for real. Hundreds and hundreds of extras, all personally and carefully dressed.
Producer Jeff Abberley has said, “Recreating the Ghetto reminded us that these events didn’t take place that long ago, and that similar events happen in different parts of our world today. We felt we had to convey the reality of 380,000 people herded into a small area and confined there for years while their conditions deteriorated exponentially day by day.”
Caro: There’s a sequence where Jan gets his friend, lawyer Maurycy Franco out of the ghetto, and we see on the one side functioning Warsaw. There’s no solid wall in this part, you can see through the barbed wire into the ghetto, and you can see Polish people strolling outside, and a guy taking pictures of his girlfriend in front of it. That’s taken from documentary footage. This is what they did.
And the parallel with the zoo is so disturbing.
And yet, the flip side of that is the zoo as sanctuary. And the Żabiński villa as sanctuary. And I think, you know, those two things always working in opposition is a very important and meaningful part of this movie. What is a cage and what is sanctuary? What is human and what is animal? All very consciously attended to in the filmmaking and certainly in the design.
We take the responsibility of putting people’s lives on film extremely seriously...and with a Holocaust story, even more so because there are so many souls to honor. Here was, and is, heroism at its essence. Anybody anywhere who wants to be inspired to do something good in their life can take that initiative from this zookeeper and his wife.
Most people will recognize the set decorator as Charlotte Watts SDSA, but she got married after the film wrapped, so the story has more than one happy ending, although much more difficult spelling!