The film presents the story of the Żabiński family, the long-standing keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, already presented in Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife.
Yet, the story is so unique that it’s worth to be told again in the form of a documentary. Its creator, Łukasz Czajka, interweaves archive footage with memories of the living witnesses to those events, helping the viewers understand the wartime fear and the heroism of the Żabiński family. Formally, the entire film is set inside the Zoo or parks that resemble the Zoo.
The outbreak of the war ceased Zoo’s dynamic development. The Germans deported to the Reich the most unique animals, such as bison, which were hoped to be used to recreate the aurochs, an extinct species of large wild cattle that died out in the 17th century. They also deported camels, hippos, elephants, and tarpans. The animals which remained in the Zoo were killed by the Nazis during hunting trips organized for entertainment. The Zoo without animals ceased to exist. In 1940, on the Zoo premises, a pig fattening house was opened for the needs of the local population. Later, a fox farm and allotment gardens were established there as well. Despite such a dramatic situation, the Żabiński family lived on and off in their villa located at the heart of the Zoo almost throughout the entire WWII. In addition, they kept conducting underground activities there, despite the proximity of German checkpoints, a weapon storehouse and Germans walking around the Zoo premises.
In Czajka’s film, the zoo keepers’ unique heroism feels fairly common. It seems the Żabiński family might have liked that image of themselves, devoid of a flashy patriotic attitude, elevated words, or glamorous simplifications. Of Animals and Men is primarily a story about humanity, with heroism being only its part.
The movie begins a few years before WWII, when the Zoo is up and running. People live among animals. The Żabiński family resides in their villa located in the centre of the Zoo. They share their house with winged and furry creatures and invite them into their rooms and even beds. It is a perfect coexistence based on love and fascination. However, the idyllic scenery is cruelly shattered by the invasion of the German army. Bombs destroy not only the Zoo buildings, but also they kill its inhabitants: giraffes, antelopes, monkeys.
The sight of dead animals affects viewers’ imagination, who have become almost indifferent to ever-present images of human suffering and death. Dead giraffes, elephants or antelopes are only symbols that make the viewers more sensitive to people being killed. Their presence on screen intensifies the absurdity of war, which does not choose its victims.
Paradoxically, Of Animals and Men is a movie about life and kindness, not about death and evilness.
Of Animals and Men is definitely one of the most interesting Polish films of the past year. The excellent usage of archive footage, Jakub Piątek’s first-rate editing, and Marcin Masecki’s music make Łukasz Czajka’s documentary truly memorable. If Polish cinema wants to discuss historical issues, it should do it in exactly this clever and mature manner.
The documentary film about Jan and Antonina Żabinski who saved about 300 people, mostly Jews, in the Warsaw Zoo during the WWII