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JessJessica Chasten (left) confers with “The Zookeeper’s Wife” director Niki Caro. | FOCUS FEATURES

On ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ set, Jessica Chastain fans have 4 legs or 2

SHARE On ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ set, Jessica Chastain fans have 4 legs or 2
SHARE On ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ set, Jessica Chastain fans have 4 legs or 2

Jessica Chastain, animal whisperer.

The Oscar-nominated actress definitely has a way with lioncubs, zebrasand all manner of crittersin “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” It opens March 31 but will screen at 7 p.m. Saturday at AMC River East as part of the JCC Chicago Film Festival (jccchicago.org).

“The Zoopkeeper’s Wife” is basedon Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book about Antonina and Jan Zabinski’s real-life efforts to save Jews in Poland during World War II.

“There wasn’t a creature on that set, human or animal, that she couldn’t mesmerize,” director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider) says of Chastain. “It was a wonderful experience.”

Jan (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh) was running the Warsaw Zoo and wife Antonina (Chastain) took care of ailing animals in their villa when the city was bombed in 1939. The zoo was obliterated, many animals were killed, and the Zabinskis convinced a former associate of theirs, Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), to keep the place open as a pig farm.

But he was unaware that the Zabinskis were also using it as a sanctuary for Jews, hiding them in the cages, tunnels and basements where the creatures oncelived. They saved more than 300 people.

“It was a wonderful story about not only animal nature vs. human nature but about radical compassion and humanity,” she says. “The Zabinskis sheltered Jews at tremendous risk to themselves for a very simple reason: because it was the right thing to do.”

The Zabinskis would go into the Warsaw ghetto under the auspices of collecting food for the pigs, and they would sneak Jews out in trash cans. Once home, the couple’s “guests” were nocturnal.Germans stored armaments at the zoo, so they came and went during the day, but at midnight, Antonina would play her piano to let everyoneknow it was safe to come up to the villa.

“These Jews lived a reasonably peaceful and luxurious existence relative to the life they had experienced in the ghetto,” Caro says. “Some stayed just a night, some stayed for years, but the risk was just astonishing.”

While Chastain is known for playing strong-willed characters, Caro says she brings a “tremendous delicacy” to Antonina, a woman who was very good with zoo creatures but not so much withpeople before they started their rescue missions. “We see Antonina caring for her guests with the same tenderness and respect that she treated animals.”

Caro describes Heldenbergh as an old-style movie star: “He’s both extremely masculine and totally open emotionally. All women everywhere will fall in love with him, I promise.” Another standout is Shira Hass, who plays Urszula, a Jewish teenager given special care by Antonina. “She is so representative of all children seriously damaged by war, to the extent she has become like an animal.”

And Brühl’s Lutz isn’t your average Nazi bad guy. Because he admires Antonina and she helps with his eugenics program, “there’s a lot of tension around that relationship.”

Caro views “The Zookeeper’s Wife as a different way of thinking about the Holocaust in that it focuses on healing tremendous trauma, but it’s also “an increasingly relevant story for our time,” she says.“When you dive deep into the Warsaw ghetto, you can’t help but be extremely affected by that. All the more reason to make the work very expressive of a way forward and a coming together, caring for one another.”

Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

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