Niki Caro’s work in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is exemplary. A native of New Zealand, she was educated there, but went on to graduate studies in Australia. After she completed a number of award-winning short films and her first feature in Australia, she went on to direct such films as “Whale Rider,” “North Country,” and “McFarland, USA.” This is her seventh feature-length film.
Our conversation ranged on a number of subjects. Ms. Caro focused on her commitment to tell the story of how a Polish couple first committed their lives to saving and protecting animals in their zoo, and how that mission shifted to saving Jews.
Here are just a few excerpts from our chat:
Q: You conclude the film with Jewish stars drawn on the outside walls of the Warsaw Zoo. Was that your idea?
A: I just wanted to end the movie honoring those who had passed through the zoo, and that seemed like a lyrical and appropriate way to do it.
Q: Growing up in New Zealand, had you had any interactions with Holocaust survivors?
A: I am not Jewish, but coincidentally, I was educated in a synagogue. My parents went through a funky education phase and a new school opened up in a synagogue. When I began, it was fifth grade and there were only ten of us. There were over 80 percent gentiles. My earliest memories were of learning Hebrew, singing the Hatikvah. I can still do the prayers and write my name in Hebrew.
I remember that I went to an Anglican middle school and when I auditioned for the choir, I didn’t know any hymns, so I sang the Hatikvah — a cappella! So I’ve always felt very close to this story. When we were at school, we had survivors come talk to us.
Q: When did your interest in cinema begin?
A: We were little children and I think that maybe my filmmaking may have started right there. We had the Christian holidays and the Jewish holidays and my parents both worked, so half the time I was never in school. They would send my brother and me off to the city and we would go watch movies, because we didn’t have babysitters…. We were little, in elementary school, and invariably when we walked out of the movies a policeman might ask, “Why are you on the street by yourself in the middle of the day?” We would say, “Well, it’s Yom Kippur” or “It’s Rosh Hashanah!” “What?” So I guess movies and Jewish culture have been a part of my life since as early as I can remember.
Q: How did you respond when you were offered a chance to direct this film?
A: I knew my responsibility. I felt it very keenly. This story needs to be told and retold. I had to consider whether I was the right person to tell it and whether I could tell it in a way that would contribute to the ongoing discussion. I was trying very hard with this material to honor the millions who lost their lives by celebrating three hundred that were saved and the extraordinary circumstances of their being saved… and to do so in a way that was very feminine and to offer some kind of healing and hope. All of that said, I thought I was making an historical drama, but it turns out I was making a contemporary film. I am horrified by how relevant this movie is and I hope it goes out there and helps people connect with why this must never happen again and why we must stop this madness.
Q: Toward the film’s conclusion, you see Antonina (Jessica Chastain) walking off with a little bison in a line of refugees. Do you choose to add that?
A: No. That was always part of the script. When we were shooting, I was always aware — because we were shooting in Europe and the whole migrant crisis was all around us, certainly in Hungary — that it was coming around again. It was very unnerving to me, even more now after the U.S. election and Brexit.
Caro and her crew made a considerable effort to replicate the Warsaw Ghetto. But I asked why, when she showed the ghetto in flames, she chose not to include any of the armed resistance that took place there. She answered that she had shot such a sequence but had to edit a great deal of material out of the film, which was too long. She went on to describe what for her was a powerful portrait of resistance.
A: The sequence you are talking about is really around the seder [which takes place at the zoo as the ghetto is aflame]. The feeling and the tone was all around the seder. I love the sequence. I love the music. Our composer, Harry Gregson-Williams, came in to our editing room… One of the scenes [he watched] was the seder. He remembered the music and he went back and stayed up all night and he called me the next morning and he said, “Listen. I’ve just written a little ditty and I will sing it to you,” and he sent me what became the theme of the movie. I cried when I heard it. It was perfect. It seemed to be the voice of all of that pain, but so beautiful.
Q: Were there any films that had a particular influence on how you made this film?
A: There was a documentary made about when they [the Allied armies] opened up the concentration camps and they had American crews come over with color film. It very interesting; very important. Because on Holocaust movies, the palette is very gray and brown. It’s very masculine. I have always maintained that nature is going to thrive and flourish regardless of what human beings are doing to each other and so it was revelatory for me to see documentary material from that time in color. I shared it with all my collaborators, because it was always my intension to make very natural and very feminine images from this material. War did not just happen to men. It happened to women and it happened to children and it happened to animals. I was going to speak for their experience…. It was about the sanctuary that Antonina created for those people, the beautiful life that she created inside that villa, with art, with music, with books. I wanted to celebrate that feminine strength in wartime.