SDG Reviews ‘Of Animals and Men’: Extraordinary Story, Mixed Presentation

A Polish documentary about the true story of Polish heroism behind ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ — in theaters for a one-day Fathom event — is undermined in the telling, especially by English dubbing.

A new documentary tells the story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, who saved Jewish lives during World War II by hiding people among the animals at the Warsaw Zoo.
A new documentary tells the story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, who saved Jewish lives during World War II by hiding people among the animals at the Warsaw Zoo. (photo: Sonovision)

A little more than a half hour into Of Animals and Men comes a haunting anecdote about a Jewish man, Andrzej Kramsztyk, living in occupied Warsaw when the Nazis ordered all Jews to relocate to the ghetto.

As related by his grandson Krzysztof, Andrzej defied the Nazi mandate, refusing to allow his family to be locked up by the Nazis. They left Warsaw and traveled from village to village as fugitives, a status that made them vulnerable to opportunistic Poles. They were robbed, blackmailed and violently evicted from one flat.

Eventually the family split up, and the man’s young daughter Joanna returned to Warsaw, turning as a last resort, following her father’s advice, to the house of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, a prominent couple who co-founded and directed the Warsaw Zoo. Krzystof credits this decision for his mother’s survival and his own existence.

The Warsaw Zoo was home to many species of animals; during the war the Nazis used the lion enclosure as a makeshift weapons depot — and, under their noses, the Żabińskis hid Jewish fugitives anywhere they could: in unused animal enclosures, stables, sheds and thickets, as well as the family villa adjacent to the zoo.

A 70-minute documentary from Polish filmmaker Lukasz Czajka, Of Animals and Men tells a story of light shining in the darkness — but the preciousness of the light depends in a way on the prevalence of the darkness, and, in that connection, it must not be forgotten that the Nazis were not the sole agents of darkness. 

This matters not only because it highlights the extraordinary heroism of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, but also because it casts into sharp relief the unease and fear of every Jewish fugitive who knocked on the Żabińskis’ door. How many of them had a founded hope that they would find shelter rather than a shakedown — or a shortcut to the ghetto?

The story of the Żabiński family and the 300 fugitives, mostly Jews, that they helped to rescue is an extraordinary story, perhaps familiar to some readers from the earnest if uneven 2017 film The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Jessica Chastain as Antonina Żabiński.

The Żabińskis’ story is largely narrated through interview footage and voice-over audio of Teresa Żabiński, the daughter of Jan and Antonina, whose memoir inspired the documentary. (Teresa died in February after seeing the completed film in 2019.) Voice-over narration from Antonina, drawn from archival sources, provides additional perspective, while Jan’s voice is heard in archival audio from one of his many radio broadcasts. Interview footage featuring survivor Moshe Tirosh adds a crucial dimension from the perspective of one of the fugitive families the Żabińskis helped to save.

Except we don’t actually hear any of their voices, at least as Of Animals and Men is presented on American screens. We see Teresa’s and Moshe’s faces as they speak, but the whole soundtrack is dubbed into English.

I can think of two legitimate uses for dubbing today: for clips of non-English speakers in broadcast news accounts, especially radio, and for foreign-language animated films, such as anime. (It can also be acceptable, in a nostalgically cheesy way, in martial-arts films and kaiju films, especially versions of these films that were already butchered anyway by American editors.)

In any serious screen presentation intended for viewers older than young children, dubbing is an obstacle and potentially a disaster. In a dramatic live-action production, dubbing destroys the integrity of a unified performance. Even in a documentary like Of Animals and Men, the emotional power of Teresa Żabiński’s eyewitness testimony is undercut by a voice that is not hers speaking in English while we see her speaking in Polish. 

Of Animals and Men is a Polish film about a Polish story. The point of interviewing someone like Żabiński rather than just having a narrator read from her book is that there is something uniquely compelling about hearing the story from the person herself. Even if you don’t speak the language, tone and timbre of voice add color to the narrative. Dubbing is a constant, condescending reminder throughout the film that the distributors don’t trust the audience.

Visually, Czajka works with an assortment of materials, including archival film from the Warsaw Zoo and other materials from the Polish National Film Archive, Żabiński family home movies, and footage shot by Czajka at the Warsaw Zoo and the Żabiński villa particularly focusing on areas unaffected by various renovations and preserving the character of the location during the war.

Some of the images are striking, such as early shots of the Żabiński family dozing in the single sleeping room that they shared not only with one another — Mom and Dad on couches, Teresa in a crib, and her older brother Ryszard in a bed — but also with an assortment of animals: an otter, a hedgehog, two turtles and some kind of raptor. Teresa mentions that she was born at the zoo, and it’s almost as if the animals and the family that cared for them were like one menagerie, or one family.

Eventually the extended menagerie includes secret guests alluded to by animal code words. One celebrity guest, sculptor Magdalena Gross, was called “Starling,” which in Antonina’s mind evoked her “flying from nest to nest” to evade her hunters. When a botched attempt to disguise Moshe Tiroche and his sister by bleaching their hair led Ryszard to say they looked like squirrels, the Tiroches became “The Squirrels.” Other guests went by “the Pheasants,” “the Hamsters” and so forth, possibly for reasons that made sense to the Żabińskis.

There are also disturbing images, including a Nazi excursion to the zoo to kill animals for sport and slaughterhouse images of pig carcasses from a period when the Nazis used zoo facilities as a pig farm and butchery. The most dreadful images, though, are painted with words, especially the horror of the liquidation of the ghetto in April 1943.

The minimal score, played on a piano, draws on Jacques Offenbach and Chopin, for reasons explained in the film: Antonina used the piano to communicate with Jews hiding in the villa basement, playing pieces from Offenbach’s operetta La belle Hélène to warn them of Nazis in the vicinity and Chopin to notify them that the coast was clear.

Because the Nazis utilized the zoo for various purposes, the coast was never clear for long. Jan Żabiński’s prominence and privileges as a prominent Warsaw municipality official were crucial to the subterfuge; he even had a ghetto pass, ostensibly to enable him to monitor the state of flora within the ghetto walls. This enabled him to maintain contacts within the ghetto and help many escape. 

It is also possible that Antonina’s beauty and charm aided the mission, especially if, as it seems, Lutz Heck — a German zoologist and Nazi Party member who oversaw some aspects of the Nazis’ utilization of the zoo, such as the pig farming operation — had a crush on her.

Like The Zookeeper’s Wife, the documentary leaves the topic of religion on the cutting-room floor. There’s certainly dramatic potential here: The story of an atheist husband and a Catholic wife working together to save persecuted Jews would seem to be of inherent interest to viewers of almost any religious persuasion. Perhaps some future retelling will highlight this dimension of a multifaceted story that has more to offer the screen than we have seen so far.

Of Animals and Men is in theaters for a one-day Fathom event on Tuesday evening, June 22.

Caveat Spectator: Some images of violence to animals, including butchering of pigs; genocide/Holocaust theme, including traumatic accounts involving children. Teens and up.