There are important stories in life that need to be told. The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those movies. We had the opportunity to speak with author Diane Ackerman about her book and the translation of it to film.
Congratulations on your book being made into a film. It sounds like quite an accomplishment.
D: Thank you. I’m thrilled with the film. They’ve done a marvelous job. Plus, we’ve been waiting for a long time for it to come out. I first heard about this, well about 8 years ago.
Wow. So it’s been quite a process. How has that process been for you?
D: It’s been fascinating because I know nothing about the film industry. All of it has been really interesting and then being on the set was a revelation.
Was there any favorite memories you had while visiting set?
D: The acting, first and foremost. The actors are extraordinary. Watching them do different versions of scenes, with little tweaking here and there, that’s been very interesting. Seeing how the sets have been arranged, watching how the actors communicate without saying anything. All of the physical and facial suggestiveness. I had never been on a set before. So discovering how one art form translates into another art form was a revelation.
So it was quite a learning experience for you?
D: It was a learning experience, but also these are unbelievably skillful actors who were drawn towards the story for very intense emotional reasons. They really believed in the characters and they played them beautifully.
What was it about this story that was important for you to write a book about it? What inspired you about it?
D: Well I was interested in the story for a variety of reasons, partly because I have always been an animal lover and my grandparents came from Poland. I was interested in the Polish countryside. Lots of things like that. But what made the story so compelling was the sentiment of Antonina. She was a woman who had almost a mystical relationship with animals. She really loved them and she was so watchful of them, so a tune of them. She knew how their senses worked and she knew how to move around them. She knew how to make them comfortable with her. They were really extended family to her, they weren’t alien life forms. That spoke to me. I have loved animals for my entire life. I have felt a deep kinship to them. I have always loved animals and I have written about nature a lot. So partly that appealed to me. But most of all was Antonina’s extraordinary heroism.
It was not traditional heroism. Her husband Jan was heroism in the traditional way. He led an underground until that specialized in blowing up trains. He fought with them. That’s how most often heroes are presented to us. They are presented to us as people who are violent and larger than life. Antonita didn’t kill anyone. What she did was the opposite. It mattered to her that the people that she was hiding not only survive the war, but survive the war with their humanity intact and that they were able to thrive when the war was over. To that end she tried to create as normal of an environment, as close as possible, inside the villa, after hours. She would bring them out of hiding, they would all get together as a kind of family. They would all support each other. They would talk to each other. There were a number of artists that were hiding there as well, including a pianist so they had concerts that were going on.
Antonina also raised a lot of orphan animals inside her home. Unusual animals like lion cubs and baby foxes, so there was the innocent distraction of animals. The animal were very therapeutic, as we think of therapeutic animals today. She was doing everything that she could think of to help the people that were hiding there keep their humanity alive. That form of compassionate heroism happens all the time on our planet, but we don’t hear about it all the time. That is the kind of heroism that we need to hear about more often, as those people are risking their lives, as she was every single day. But their goals is so profoundly humane and loving. I felt like I had to write about it.
Is there a part of the book that didn’t make it into the movie that you wish had?
D: I’m sure there must be. But I can’t, because you know, the book is so long. I can’t think of any at the moment. The parts that didn’t make it in are the interior parts. Things that people are thinking. When I go into detail about what they are feeling, what their relationships are like. The descriptions of things. It’s just not the nature of film to be able to do that effectively. So I will always love literature and want to do that and not make films. But I love watching films.
Was there a moment from the book that you saw on film that just made you stop and go “wow” that’s incredible.
D: There were so many. Antonina working with the big mother elephant. Her interaction with Lutz Heck which was incredibly subtle on screen. It was subtle in reality also and complicated. But to see the facial expressions. To see all of the emotion that is being stored inside and to see it playing across the faces of the actors. I found those things very, very powerful. The actual going into the ghetto itself. I read a lot about it. I pictured it in my minds eye, but that’s different from actually seeing in front of you. That was immensely powerful and reminded you how much was at stake and how terrifying this must have been.
What do you hope that people take away from the movie?
D: I hope that they will revise their idea of what a hero is and that they will come to appreciate that even in wartime there are humanitarians that are risking everything for the sake of strangers and because they feel that it is the right thing to do. There aren’t just a few people like that. In Warsaw there were hundreds of thousands of non jews who were helping people survive and escape. There was a lot of anti semitism in Europe at that time, but there was also a lot of compassion. We just don’t hear about that quite so much.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is in theaters now.