Clumsy Documentary Tells Fascinating Story

A camel is led through the streets of Warsaw to the Warsaw Zoo. Courtesy of Outsider Pictures

There’s no shortage of interesting material in “Of Animals and Men,” a Polish documentary about Jan and Antonina Żabiński, the Catholic Warsaw zookeepers credited with sheltering about 300 Jews during World War II.

Their story was detailed capably in 2017’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which starred Jessica Chastain, but this documentary directed by Łukasz Czajka misses the mark. While it does tell all the salient parts of a fascinating story, the poor organization, a lack of accompanying information and ham-handed editing make this feel like a film school project.

For example, at the beginning of the film, which is dubbed in English, viewers are presented with footage from inside the Żabiński family home at the zoo. The parents and two children are sleeping in a room, while turtles, a bird, a hedgehog and an otter gambol about.

Cool stuff, but the narration at the time is describing the family’s origin at the zoo — while the footage is from after the war, which isn’t apparent until much later in the film. Nor is there any explanation of who shot the film or, for that matter, who is narrating. (The press materials say it’s Antonina Żabiński, who died in 1971, so apparently it’s from an archival interview).

Teresa Żabińska-Zawadzki, who died earlier this year, was the daughter of Jan and Antonina Żabiński. Courtesy of Outsider Pictures

Daughter Teresa Żabińska-Zawadzki, who died earlier this year, is also interviewed on camera at several points, but there’s never a graphic identifying her. Viewers will think they know who it is, but it’s not clear for a while. Her narration meanders at times, too. Granted, it’s fine for her to reminisce, but tighter editing would have kept her on point more often.

The lack of identification happens throughout the film.

Moshe Tirosh, who hid at the zoo with his family while a small boy, offers gripping details about his time there, yet we never learn his name — it seems like that identification is something taught in documentary filmmaking 101.

There also are suspect juxtapositions, such as footage of bombs dropping and the zoo animals being startled. Given the other shoddy editing, it’s not clear if the animals are being upset by the bombings, or if it’s just random footage of lions roaring and monkeys screeching, interspersed with newsreel footage.

So, after all that, is “Of Animals and Men” worth watching?

If you’ve seen “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which presents the events fairly faithfully, there’s probably no need to see this. But if you haven’t — or you want to go deeper — this may be worth a watch and, at 70 minutes, it covers a lot of ground briskly.

For those who don’t know the background, Jan Żabiński, who was a zoologist, and his wife Antonina, a writer, co-founded the Warsaw Zoo in 1929, and he served as its director until Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The bombings kill many of the zoo animals and others are taken away by the Nazis.

The Nazis appointed him superintendent of public parks, which proved important because it gave him access to the Warsaw Ghetto. The Żabińskis begin to help their Jewish friends immediately, providing escape routes, along with shelter within the empty animal cages at the zoo, as well as the family home.

Often the stays were temporary until the Jews found refuge elsewhere, but the Żabińskis are credited with saving about 300 Jews.

In 1944, Jan Żabiński joined the Warsaw Polish Uprising, was injured and taken prisoner by Germany, leaving Antonina Żabiński to continue his work.

After the war, Jan Żabiński resumed his role heading the zoo, a role he maintained into the 1950s when he resigned after clashing with Communist overlords.

In 1965, the Żabińskis received the Righteous Among the Nations award, and a tree-planting ceremony in their honor was held at Yad Vashem three years later.

As scattered as it might be, “Of Animals and Men” does capture the extent of the family’s humanity.

Antonina Żabiński often played specific pieces on the piano to warn those hiding in the house of possible dangers. Courtesy of Outsider Pictures

And there are plenty of interesting tidbits, such as one survivor living in the family’s basement describing how Antonina Żabiński warned when there was danger by playing “La Belle Hélène (The Beautiful Helen)” by Jacques Offenbach, and performing the work of Frédéric Chopin when it was safe again. Another detailed a failed attempt to dye their hair blonde.

Tirosh describes how those in hiding were kept separate from each other — by design. That way, if one person or family was captured, they couldn’t be forced to give up the others — others they didn’t know about.

“Of Animals and Men” wraps up on a hopeful note, but the short run time afforded the possibility for someone other than Żabiński-Zawadzki, who was born in 1943 and, thus, would have no direct recollections of what happened during the war, to reflect on the lasting impact of what her parents accomplished.

Fathom Events is presenting “Of Animals and Men” on June 22. See for details on theaters and show times.

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