Lukasz Czajka’s short–just over an hour with credits–documentary about the Warsaw Zoo during the second world war is a poignant companion piece to the 2017 fiction feature film The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Jessica Chastain.
Czajka’s documentary is built around a lengthy interview with Teresa Zabinska-Zawadzki, whose parents–Jan and Antonina Zabinski, former directors of the Warsaw Zoo, who saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust by hiding on the premises–and is both a testament to the will of ordinary people to resist brutality, even against strangers, and to the human inclination to see ourselves reflected in the eyes of animals.
Teresa Zabinska-Zawadzki, who died in 2017, is an elegant older woman with a tidy blond bob and bold red lipstick; she’s is the film’s voice, having been literally born on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo. Among the film’s many vintage clips is one of her napping in her crib with an otter; she’s not kidding when she says in voiceover that we (she, her parents and her brother Rys) “slept in the company of animals.” Her voice is amply backed up by documentary footage but unmatched when it comes to conveying the intimacy of her life in close quarters with otters, bears, antelope and other wildlife.
The Warsaw Zoological Garden, which opened in 1928, was and is a 40-acre menagerie designed both to entertain and educate visitors, the core mission of serious zoological parks as opposed to roadside attractions. Beginning in 1939, Warsaw was besieged, but during the German occupation Zabinski’s parents, Jan and Antonina, managed to save some of their animals with help of neighbors who brought leftovers and vegetable peelings to feed the menagerie’s survivors of multiple bombings. More quietly, the Zabinskis managed to shelter some 300 of their Jewish neighbors in the zoo’s subterranean spaces until the war’s end.
Much of the documentary’s narrative will be familiar to viewers who have seen or read about Niki Caro’s 2017 fiction feature The Zookeeper’s Wife, but there’s a gut-punch factor that comes with documentary footage and first-person testimony, even Zabinski’s gentle recollections of sleeping in her childhood bed with otters and other wild creatures her mother tenderly raised, cared for and rehabilitated in their home on the zoo’s grounds. And overall Of Animals and Men is deeply, if not necessarily deliberately, intertwined with films that demand that the viewer think hard about his or her relationship with animals.