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The Zookeeper’s Wife: How to Write a True Story

By Marisa Dupras · May 23, 2017

The Zookeepers Wife is about as close to the true story as a film can get. That is to say it’s remarkable close – after all, given that Antonina Zabinski kept a detailed diary, even small particular events that took place at the Warsaw Zoo were ripe for adaptation. For the most part, Antonina and her husband Jan were very much like the characters portrayed on screen. Lutz Heck really did want to win Antonina’s affections. Antonina really did communicate with their hidden guests through the piano. The damage to the zoo really was that bad, and basically everything was as awful, dangerous, and as heroic as shown.

Usually movies that are based on a true story depend heavily on that key word: “based”. Any story that relies on concrete details has to do undergo some degree of shifting in order to make things compelling to an audience. Often times this is demanded by historical record. Not every subtle nuance of every event is known, which forces the screenwriters to fill in the blanks. Additionally much of a true story is usually ignored and replaced with something fabricated in an effort to change the tone (for better or worse). Think about the ways classic Disney films adjust the truth in order to sugarcoat their original story. Film’s like Fargo take this a step further – purporting to be based on true events as part of their appeal, despite being almost entirely fictional (we hope). However, all of this is seriously not true of the Zookeeper’s Wife. Director Niki Caro was smart to include just about every hardship Antonina and her husband went through in the film, including the rift in their marriage caused by such extreme stress and the very real danger their own children were in. This is the rare case of a true story with its own perfectly moving plot without need for fabrication.

So, since there was an obvious choice not to change or ignore the true story, any small change – no matter how fine a detail – must have been significant. One in particular has to do with the scene in which Lutz nearly executes Antonina’s son Ryszard. In the film, Lutz, infuriated after discovering Antonina has been hiding Jews in her zoo for years, forces her young son Ryszard to lock her in one of the animal pens. Antonina begs for Lutz to spare Ryszard and even tries to appeal to his good will. Lutz takes Ryszard out of sight and a moment later, a gunshot is heard. For a horrible moment, that must have felt like an eternity to Antonina, she believes her son has been executed. Ryszard then reappears, and tries to comfort his mother, while Lutz angrily departs the zoo. It seemed he wasn’t so malicious as to kill her son, but was just malicious enough to trick her into thinking he did for a moment.

In real life, this horrible “trick” actually was played on Antonina. However, Lutz was not involved. Antonina wrote in her diary that a German soldier took a teenaged zoo assistant behind the house, and a shot was heard. Then he came back and told Ryszard, “You’re next” and took Ryszard behind the house. Antonina was helpless as another shot was heard, and she believed her son had been executed. Both boys emerged from behind the house alive, and the solider showed Antonina a dead chicken. He laughed and said “We played a nice trick on you.”

This small change in detail in some ways services the plot (Lutz is an antagonistic figure after all). However, it’s greatest function lies elsewhere: tone. The fact that another young boy was involved, or that the German soldier shot the chicken instead, were not necessary details – and in fact, the very nature of a fun, albeit mean-spirited joke, does little to convey the high stakes and constant pressure of Antonina’s plight. Given all the twists and turns in Antonina’s dealings with Lutz, it makes more narrative sense Lutz the one who pretended to execute her son, rather than a random soldier with little personal connection to the story. A good story (even a true one) needs a villain, and that’s Lutz. He may not be the worst Nazi to ever grace the silver screen, but for our purposes, he’s our window into their ideals as a whole. Antonina is the hero of her story, and Lutz frightens and disgusts her even from the moment he firsts speaks. As a result, the moment works as an incredibly most appropriate climax for the film, with Lutz and Antonina face to face, on opposing sides of the metal bars, with her son’s life at stake.

 

Tone was the other huge reason for this decision. Lutz doesn’t say the line “We played a nice trick on you” as the German soldier actually said in real life, and he certainly doesn’t laugh at Antonina’s expense either. He doesn’t even seem eager to show her that it was all a trick, as Ryszard reappears to Antonina by himself. The tone is wildly different. Since it is Lutz in the scene and not someone else, it’s more believable that he wouldn’t think this was funny given that he does, in fact, like Antonina. Where the soldier in real life seemed to have intentionally planned that cruel trick for his own amusement, the tone in the film suggests that Lutz felt so angered and betrayed by Antonina that he really did intend to kill her son. His decision not to at the last minute arises out Antonina’s attempts to appeal to his good nature. There was one shred of respect he felt, in his mind, he could earn back from Antonina: not killing Ryszard. And yet, he makes it brutally clear to her that he could have. That implication is extremely powerful.

Through the omission of laughter and a single line, the script gives the audience a much different mood. “We played a nice trick on you”. It’s proof that even the smallest change can make an incredible dramatic difference to the tone of a whole script. It’s why the “truth” part of a “true story” can be a fickle thing. After all, cinema is chock-full of exceptional historical adaptations that aimed for the macro over the micro. Films that aim for the spirit of the truth, rather than 100 percent accuracy.  Figure out what the truth is trying to say, and help it along however you can. We’re not making documentaries, after all.