As Helmut Zemo, the secret architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s status quo-rattling Civil War, Daniel Brühl showed no fear when pitting Team Iron Man against Team Captain America. But the German actor confessed to Yahoo Movies that he’s considerably less at ease sharing the screen with animals rather than superheroes.
Brühl’s latest role in the World War II drama The Zookeeper’s Wife required spending lots of time with various members of the animal kingdom. Within the first 10 minutes of the Niki Caro-directed film, now playing in limited release, he and co-star Jessica Chastain get up close and personal with a pair of nervous elephant parents whose young offspring is struggling to breathe. “It was impressive to see that Jessica can handle animals very well,” Brühl says of Chastain’s general comfort around the film’s cast of creatures great and small. “She was fearless, even with the wildest ones. That was pretty impressive. It annoyed me a little bit, I have to say, being the sissy!”
To be fair, Brühl didn’t anticipate he’d be acting opposite a literal elephant in the room when he first read the script for The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on the true story of Antonia Żabiński (Chastain), who worked alongside her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), to make the Warsaw zoo a safe place for animals — and Jewish prisoners — during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Brühl plays Dr. Lutz Heck, a Nazi-affiliated zoologist who has his own plans for the zoo’s animal population … and clear designs on Antonia.
Early on, the actor assumed that Caro and the production team would create a CGI menagerie to avoid safety concerns and budget constraints that accompany using live animals. In a separate interview, the Whale Rider director said that that option was a nonstarter with her from the get-go. “I couldn’t conceive of making an authentic film out of a real story and using fake animals. So we used real, exotic animals and, might I say, very respectfully and very safely.”
Caro points to the elephant sequence as an example of the benefits of using real animals rather than CGI doppelgängers. “This movie is really an interspecies love story between Jessica and the animals. The otherworldly connection between her and the animals was really something to behold and a great gift.” As Antonia works to clear the young elephant’s blocked breathing passages, she also has to calm the mother and father, whose natural instinct to protect their child threatens to put her in harm’s way.
While Dad stomps his feet and trumpets aggressively, Mom slides her trunk all over Chastain’s kneeling figure, a gesture that reads onscreeen as both a plea and a warning. In fact, though, Caro says that the elephant was mainly searching for a snack. “We concealed apples on Jessica’s body, just underneath her outfit, actually. So the elephant was looking for an apple. That sort of thing — utilizing natural behavior, but creating a very different story onscreen — is just genuine, old-school moviemaking.”
Although Chastian was comfortable with turning her body into a kind of elephant picnic basket, Brühl struggled somewhat with his role in that sequence. In an effort to protect Antonia, Lutz leads the increasingly agitated father elephant away from his mate and child, into a separate pen. “Did Daniel tell you how frightened he was to lead the elephant through the gate?” Caro says, laughing. “We really heightened the bar for him; he couldn’t wuss out on any of the animal work with Jessica Chastain around. She’s a true animal whisperer.” Brühl cops to being nervous, but credits his elephantine co-star with making the scene a painless one to perform. “I think he wanted a lunch break as quickly as we wanted one,” he jokes. “You look into the eyes of this massive animal, and it’s incredible to see how much intelligence there is. After one take, he completely understood what we wanted from him.”
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