Niki Caro explains her pursuit of truth in The Zookeeper’s Wife

After making a complete change from her college major in finance and interest in sculpture, director Niki Caro found herself pursuing a new career in directing. She was drawn to the art of telling stories, and she realized that sculpture — no matter how interesting the subject — can never communicate a story as distinctly as film can.

Caro explained her artistic transition. 

“I did a sort of 180-degree move and began to try to create stories from films, as a means of connecting with an audience and telling stories in, I believe, the most visceral, emotional, moving and entertaining way,” she said.

The desire to tell stories eventually brought Caro to directing — not only fictional stories, but also stories rooted in truth, including those based on past historical truths.

Caro’s most recent film, The Zookeeper’s Wife, originally a nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman, follows the true story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johann Heldenbergh), a non-Jewish couple in Warsaw, Poland who sheltered hundreds of Holocaust survivors in their zoo.

The film focuses around Antonina, a headstrong female protagonist whose strength is found in her softness. Antonina is compassionate and kind; she is courageous and strong, putting her and her husband’s lives at risk every day to care for hundreds.

The history within The Zookeeper’s Wife was not the only thing that drew Caro to tell this story.

“I was very compelled by the idea that this was a different kind of Holocaust movie — very exotic, very domestic and very, very female in its focus,” Caro said.

While many Holocaust films focus on the horror and tragedy of the events, The Zookeeper’s Wife explores the survival and humility of humanity. Antonina, who is very shy and ill at ease with other people, finds a way to not only provide refuge, but to also build a home for 300 Polish Jews.

“I was inspired by Antonina’s courage and her care and her compassion because she sheltered Jews at a great risk for her and her family for no other reason than it was the right thing to do,” Caro said.

The innate need to tell the story authentically falls at the center of Caro’s filmmaking values. From the scripting to casting to directing, Caro plays a role in ensuring every aspect is as detailed and accurate as possible.

Caro worked closely with screenwriter Angela Workman to further represent the written script in the story she was creating. The script continued to change throughout the casting process. Caro and Workman added the character of Urszula (Shira Haas), a young, traumatized child that Antonina connected with and cared for as if she were an animal.

The messages of hope in a time of trauma were the most important aspects of the film for Caro. She wanted to capture the essence of the tale and create a poignant film — not only because the story deserved to be told, but also because its messages are strong and pertinent today. The themes — feminine strength, helpfulness, personal sacrifice for others and oppression — resonate throughout the movie.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is not merely a movie about World War II. It is a movie about the present day.

“Young people need not look very much further than their daily newspaper to connect to the story at the moment,” Caro said.

The Zookeeper’s Wife hits theaters March 31.