Writing for The Hollywood Reporter from the Prague set of ' The Zookeeper's Wife' (Focus Features), the Oscar-nominated actress reveals the good things that can happen with a woman director (Niki Caro). For starters, more females get hired: "This comes from when women in power make room for other women."
This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I'm in Prague filming a movie called The Zookeeper's Wifewith director Niki Caro. I can't tell you — it's amazing. I've never been on a set with so many women. We're not even 50 percent of the crew — we're probably something like 20 percent women and 80 percent men — but it's way more than I've ever worked with on a film before. There are female producers (Diane Levin, Kim Zubick and Katie McNeill), a female screenwriter (Angela Workman), a female novelist (Diane Ackerman), a female protagonist and a female director. I've never seen a female camera operator like Rachael Levine on one of my films. And I've never, ever seen a female stunt coordinator like Antje "Angie" Rau.
Usually on a movie it would be me and maybe two or three other women, even though there are 100 people there. It's crazy. I loved making the movie Lawless — it was a very masculine story about three brothers — but when Mia Wasikowska showed up on the set, I ran into her trailer and yelled, "It's a girl!" I was so happy.
Chastain (left) on the set of 'The Zookeeper’s Wife' with Caro. The film is based on Ackerman’s nonfiction book about Antonina Zabinska, who along with her husband, Jan Zabinski, ran the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. The couple saved hundreds of people, and animals, by hiding them in zoo cages during the Nazi invasion. Focus is set to release the movie in 2016.
Some people might say a woman can't direct this because of that, or a man can't direct that because of this. I don't like to do that. Look at Kathryn Bigelow: She can do incredible action films. Or Anthony Minghella, who directed the most beautiful, sensitive romances. For me, sex really isn't the qualifier in the way someone directs — but I just know that when you have a set with predominantly one gender, whether it be all men or all women, it's not going to be a healthy place. I imagine it's the same thing in the workforce or other environments: 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; you don't have anyone feeling like they are being left out or bullied or humiliated. Sometimes being the only girl on a set, you can feel like a sexual object.
I was talking to other actors about this recently, and the wonderful thing about having so many women on set is there hasn't been anyone who has screamed or anything like that. It's a very collaborative experience, and it's been heaven for me. We all hang out all the time — there are no strange power plays or egos. We know how rare making this kind of film is. We're giddy with happiness.
I don't think it's a fluke. If you look at the people who put the film together, it's a lot of women who have had a difficult time in the industry, so of course they are going to want to be on a set where they aren't the token woman, where there are more voices. And I'm positive that just comes from the women in the power positions making room for other women. Of course, Niki and producers Diane and Kim are not going to think it would be strange to hire a woman — I'm sure that probably helped matters.
From left: Production designer Suzie Davies and producers Jamie Patricof, Levin, Zubick and McNeill
on the set of 'The Zookeeper’s Wife,' which recently wrapped shooting in Prague.
I want to make sure I'm contributing to creating diversity in the industry. I want to work with anyone who is talented, but I know that some people have to work harder to succeed in this business than others. I did Texas Killing Fields with Ami Canaan Mann, Zero Dark Thirty with Kathryn Bigelow, Miss Julie with Liv Ullmann and now Zookeeper's Wife with Niki. And I'm doing another film with a female director that's not been announced yet. I read this incredible article Chris Rock did [in the Dec. 12, 2014, edition of The Hollywood Reporter] where he talked about race in Hollywood, and he said that if there is an African-American who needs help, he's going to be way more into helping them because he understands they don't have the opportunity that other people do.
In this industry, female filmmakers have had a really hard time of it. Niki Caro should be directing everything right now — she's worked for so long and is incredible, and her movies are great — yet she has not been given the same opportunities a man would. I don't want to be part of the statistics when only about 4 percent of Hollywood studio movies are directed by women. I don't want my percentages to be the same as the status quo.
It's like Viola Davis said in her Emmy speech: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. It's the same situation with female directors versus male directors — they are not given the same opportunity. There was an incredible essay I read in Lena Dunham's Lenny newsletter by Ellen Pao, the former interim CEO of Reddit. She talks about sexism in the technology world and that it's so bad you don't even realize it's happening. People want to hire their friends and people they get along with, and if there is a company that has a lot of men, and the men are always hanging out together, those are the men who are going to be promoted. It was an incredible essay, and I think it applies to all industries.
Levine, a camera operator, on the set of the movie, which was adapted for the big screen by Workman.
If you look at the studio system and the American film industry, people want to work with their friends. If men are predominantly the ones working, they are the ones being given the opportunities more than women.
I'm about to go work with John Madden again, whom I absolutely love. There are so many men out there who are the most sensitive, beautiful and supportive people ever. But I've been on sets a couple of times where I've noticed that if I have an idea about a scene, I have to go through the male actors to be heard. It's really annoying. The male actor will have a better relationship with the male director, so I have to get the actor on my side. That's the only thing that sometimes feels very icky.
Many times a movie gets tested before it sees the light of day, and I've starred in movies that test much better with women than they do with men. But the problem with that is the majority of critics are men, so those movies that test really high for women are then having men critique them. And it means we need more female critics — we need to level the playing field here.
I do think things are changing. The reason I think they are changing is because whenever I talk about these issues with men I know in the industry — they are very talented, really intelligent and very successful men — there's this embarrassment. They say, "I don't understand how it got to be like this." And I think that is what will help things change because it takes the group that is the majority in the industry to say, "Wait a minute: Maybe it's more interesting to have more female voices in the executive suite and not just a token woman."
It's not a valid excuse to say women don't call asking to direct superhero movies. Every female director I've asked if she'd be interested in directing a big movie like that says, "Hell, yeah." And if that's true, it shows how deep-seated the problem is. I don't think the problem is women; it's the representation. It goes to the agents. It has to change. This is 2015.
Read more essays from THR's Women in Entertainment issue:
Barbra Streisand on Hollywood's Double Standard: "What Does 'Difficult' Mean, Anyway?"
Patricia Arquette: What Happened After My Oscar Speech on Pay Inequality (Guest Column)
Ellen Pao on How to Fix the Pay Gap: I Eliminated Salary Haggling at Reddit
Camille Paglia Takes on Taylor Swift, Hollywood's #GirlSquad Culture
Why Girls Who Love Fairy Tales Grow Up to Be Film Editors (Not Directors)
Essay (back to top)
Diane Ackerman’s book, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a collection of diaries written by a Polish woman in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation between 1939 and 1944. The aftermath of the initial attack left the Warsaw Zoo in shambles, and its keepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski were left with its upkeep while German soldiers pillaged the remaining animals and grounds as game and their own personal park. Soon thereafter, with no other means of livelihood available, Jan began participating in the underground resistance movement and the Zabinskis began harboring Jews and political exiles in cages and underground labyrinths originally created for the zoo’s animals.
Antonina’s diaries begin a few days before the Nazis invaded Poland and continue up until a short time after 1945, recalling the aftermath of the war and the beginning of the restoration process. Ackerman follows a chronological progression, framed largely by Antonina’s recollections, but also includes key moments during the occupation that in one way or another shaped the war for the Zabinskis and their guests.
Antonina, in her memoirs, and Ackerman in the book, relate many of the Zabinskis' experiences to situations regarding animals and their deep connection to the larger animal world. As a caretaker from the beginning, Antonina naturally “reigned as a mammal mother and protectress of many others.” Her disposition made her the perfect caregiver in a household of strays, both human and not.
Ackerman uses these experiences and personality quirks to create a deeper understanding of the relationship the Zabinskis had to their guests and of their innate need to do right by others. Jan’s background as an animal psychologist gave him unique insight into the personalities and characteristics shared by both humans and animals, while Antonina’s wild and deep connection to the animal world enabled her to more easily access the inconsistencies in German disposition and use them to her advantage.
The Zabinskis’ well-known status in Warsaw as friends to humans and animals also facilitated their connections to prominent Germans and pro-Nazi Poles, giving them additional sources of subsistence and coal during the harsh Polish winters, allowing for the prolonged stay of multiple guests. While for the most part the Zabinskis’ villa was a gateway to the larger resistance movement for traveling refugees, there were occasions in which their guests would stay for prolonged periods of time, further strengthening the Zabinskis’ ties to the Jewish community and the underground movement. However, as gateway, they were able to offer shelter to over three hundred individuals between the years of 1939 and 1944, “creating a halfway house, ‘a stopping place for those who escaped the Ghetto, until their destinies were decided and they moved to new [more concealed] hideouts’” (Ackerman, 114).
Ackerman uses Antonina’s diaries to frame a larger story about the Polish resistance movement, but focuses mainly on the Zabinskis’ close circle of friends. She compiles information concerning not only historical facts about resistance groups and individual Samaritans, but also some of the leading spiritual and theological perspectives to give readers a more in depth and wide-ranging perspective on Polish resistance during World War 2.
Unwavering Bravery: Polish Heroes in Warsaw During Nazi Occupation
Diane Ackerman uses Antonina Zabinski’s memoirs as a frame of reference to describe the greater underground movement in Warsaw and its surrounding areas during Nazi occupation. Antonina’s diaries, her hopes and her fears, give life and substance to what was really happening to people within the underground movement and the burdens fugitives carried with them because of the danger posed to those protecting them. The diaries help to illustrate the types of people that participated in the resistance, and the lengths to which they would go to protect those around them. These people were usually average Polish citizens who were, for some reason or another, against the Nazi regime and felt it their duty to assist Jews as a type of resistance.From this starting point, Ackerman then uses various sources to give both spiritual and factual histories about resistance groups and individuals who stuck out particularly in her opinion in Poland during the Holocaust.
For example, Ackerman mentions a prominent Jewish orphanage director in Warsaw who, when offered an escape, instead moved to the ghetto with his orphans to take care of them and provide security for their well-being during a time of frightening uncertainty. Then, in 1942 Henryk Goldszmit displayed unwavering bravery once again, in accompanying his charges to the gas chambers of Treblinka to await a certain death (185). An eyewitness account recalls the scene:
A miracle occurred, two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows they clung to their teacher and mentor, their father and brother, [Henryk Goldszmit] (186).
Although such acts of bravery were not uncommon, Ackerman describes in detail this formerly prominent writer’s need to take care of these children both physically and spiritually.
Another uncommonly brave character mentioned is Feliks Cywinski, a World War 1 veteran and old friend of Jan Zabinski. Cywinski had two apartments in which he hid and “fed as many as seventeen people, providing separate pots and dishes for those who kept kosher” (218). After caring for so many people so generously, Cywinski soon ran out of money. And, “when his money ran out, Feliks went into debt, sold his own home, and used the profits to rent and furnish four more apartments for hiding Jews” (219). Others like Feliks Cywinski who hid Jews would count on the assistance of carpenters and architects involved with the underground to assemble false walls and bunkers where several people could hide while German soldiers searched houses and apartments to no avail (119).
Dr. Marda Walter and her husband offered yet another exceedingly brave, but this time unusual, gesture of goodwill. Their contribution to the underground resistance movement was the Institut de Beaute where they taught Jewish women “how to appear Aryan and not attract notice” (220). These lessons included learning the catechism and how to cook traditional Polish meals, including pork. This “kind of charm school [was in] the charm of nondetection” (221), which also included changes in speech and sometimes even plastic surgery. These services were, of course, only used in the most dire circumstances and included nasal reconstruction and plastic surgery to restore foreskins on Jewish men to hide those traits considered inherently Jewish. While Mrs. Walter’s services did not include housing Jews, her actions put her and her family at risk, and showed a great amount of generosity considering that most of the procedures were done at very low costs to the patients (222).
Ackerman illustrates the Zabinskis connection to the underground network and people such as those mentioned above to make real the need for wholly selfless people. She explains the complexities of getting proper documentation for those trying to escape the horrors of the Nazis. “Each escapee [from the ghetto] required at least half a dozen documents and changed houses 7.5 times on average…between 1942 and 1943 the Underground forged fifty thousand documents” (140). Secret meetings in cafes, the changing of names or code names such as the animal names given to the guests at the Zabinski villa, secret underground conspirators working directly with the Nazis undetected were all essential to the proper functioning of underground missions. There was an entire stream of information that had to be protected or else the entire underground movement would have been exposed. As many people recall there was an unforgivingly systematic documentation system set up by the Nazis who
aimed step by step, by means of interlocking decrees, to create a reporting and documentation system that would render any kind of [resistance] machinations impossible and that would locate any single inhabitant of the city with appropriate precision (243).
Thus, the necessity for organizations such as the Zegota [a “cryptonym for the Council to Aid the Jews” (187)], was closely connected to the existence of such “safe houses” as those run by the Zabinskis.
Throughout the book, Ackerman portrays extremely pious and exceedingly brave men and women. Those who merely acted in accordance with Nazi laws were not included, and were discreetly dismissed as just as bad as the Nazis for their non-participation in the resistance. Like Jan and Antonina, who risked their own lives and the life of their son, Ackerman’s characters only display the most radical and unwavering bravery and resistance.
This approach sheds a much different light on the actions of non-Jewish Poles during the Second World War, as they are usually depicted as antisemitic. Ackerman does not disregard the presence of antisemitism, she knew “it still percolated in twentieth-century Warsaw, a city of 1.3 million people, a third of whom were Jewish” (23). This dichotomy between Ackerman’s Poles and one’s normal association is quite unusual. It also takes away some of the attention normally paid to Jews, and gives the reader a view into the life of a non-Jewish hero (or heroes) who had no ties to the Jewish community in a familial way, but still felt it their duty to help them. For Antonina
There was no alternative, really [to being in the underground]. One needed it to face the stultifying fear and sadness aroused by such daily horrors as people beaten and arrested on the streets, deportations to Germany, torture in Gestapo squads or Pawiak prison, mass executions. (99)
Ackerman highlights the hostile situation Poles were in, considering their lesser place within the Nazi hierarchy. While harboring a Jew was punishable by death in most countries, in Poland, one was more likely to be snitched out or otherwise given away, sometimes simply for an extra ration of sugar or bread:
Unlike other occupied countries, where hiding Jews could land you in prison, in Poland harboring a Jew was punishable by death to the rescuer and also to the rescuer’s family and neighbors, in a death frenzy deemed ‘collective responsibility.’ (116)
While this was both due to the fact that there was a much larger Jewish population in Poland, and the fact that Germans also considered Poles a lesser people like the Jews, one must consider this when reading about the determination of these members of the underground to help the Jews. Their situation was much more dangerous because of the hostile political environment, and most Poles were unwilling to risk their lives for Jews, so these participants mentioned in Antonina’s diary and Ackerman’s side-notes were the most daring of rescuers.
Ackerman’s story introduces many unusual and uncommon “truths” through the eyes of the zookeeper’s wife. Antonina makes no effort to conceal her knowledge of the concentration camps: “by now everyone understood that ‘resettlement” meant death” for the Jews (202). Unlike the usual bystanders however, Antonina also does not seem to comprehend that one could not help others in such a time. She never mentions her fear in relation to not being able to help, only her concern for those she loves and her desire to do more for the poor guests whose lives have been utterly destroyed.
Antonina explains the difficulty associated with helping so many people and yet not being able to help them all. “The ‘heavy ballast of being responsible for the lives of others’ slid around her body and stole through her mind as an obsession” (275). As a coping mechanism, as was for many witnesses to the Holocaust, denial protected bystanders from accepting the reality of Nazi cruelty. Antonina mentions specifically that it was not her alone, but her Jewish guests as well, who could not stand to think of the atrocities being committed:
Regardless of what they knew or didn’t know, the Zabinskis risked everything they had to save as many people as they could. Ackerman illustrates this in The Zookeeper’s Wife and makes clear the importance of the underground and the interconnectedness of the community involved in saving as many people as possible.
As long as we didn’t witness such events themselves, feel it with our own skin…we could dismiss them as otherworldly and unheard-of, only cruel gossip, or maybe a sick joke. (103)