“Of Animals and Men” Premiere – a Film About Jan and Antonina Żabiński

Redakcja / Editorial staff / English translation: Andrew Rajcher, 5th September 2019
“O zwierzętach i ludziach” (Of Animals and Men), a documentary film directed by Łukasz Czajka, will screen in Polish cinemas from 6th September. This is another film, following the Hollywood blockbuster “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, directed by Niki Caro, which tells the story of the Director of the Warsaw ZOO, Jan Żabiński, and his wife Antonina who, during the Holocaust, extended help to many Jews. This documentary was created using archival material, dramatised re-creations and the statements of the last living witnesses to history and the descendants of the film's heroes.

The starting point of my film was decency, that one should provide help and that love and decency will make the world a better place. I wanted to show a story about the animals which are not the subjects of our history textbooks and films. I had the need to get them involved in this story from the past – Łukasz Czajka (Source: Onet.pl)

During the years of German occupation, the Warsaw ZOO, run by Director Jan Żabiński, became a place of hiding for many Jews during the Holocaust. The Żabińskis’ villa, located on the ZOO grounds and known as “The House Under the Wacky Star”, provided refuge for, among others, writer Rachela Auerbach, sculptress Magdalena Gross, as well as for Samuel Koenigswein and his family. For extending this help, in 1965, Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina were honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Their story hit the world’s screens in 2017 in the Hollywood blockbuster “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, directed by Niki Caro. That film was based on the book of the same name, written by American author Diane Ackerman, which was based on the memoirs of Antonina Żabińska, who became that film’s central character. She was played by Jessica Chastain, Hollywood star, Golden Globe winner and twice nominated for an Oscar. Now, cinemas will screen another film about the Żabińskis: “Of Animals and Men”, directed by Łukasz Czajka. 

Łukasz Czajka’s Film

This documentary is based on the book by Antonina Żabińska, “Of Animals and Men”, using archival material, dramatised re-creations and statements of the last living witnesses to history and the descendants of the film’s heroes, among them Holocaust survivor Moshe Tirosha, Krzysztof Prochaski, whose mother hid in the ZOO, and the Żabiński couple’s daughter, Teresa Zawadzka. 

The truth of this documentary turns out to be more powerful than the feature film with its stellar cast. The scene, depicting the search of the ZOO by German soldiers, generates a tension greater than the most eminent creators of cinema thrillers – Bartosz Staszczyszyn (Source: Culture.pl)

The film is rich in surreal scenes featuring the animals. Apart from the Żabiński family and the Jews they were hiding, the animals are one of the most important elements of the story which begins before the War, when the Warsaw ZOO was teeming with life. The Żabiński family live amongst those for whom they care – the animals – whose fate changes with the beginning of German occupation, when bombs fall on the ZOO.

The vision of killed animals, as in Emir Kusturica’s “Underground”, has perhaps an even greater impact on our imagination, which is somehow neutralised to images of human suffering and death which appear so often. Dead giraffes, elephants or antelopes are not at all used here symbolically, sensitising us to human death. Their presence on the screen highlightss the absurdity of war, which is not selective about its victims. The aim of warfare is not to eliminate enemies, but the total death of all, even the most innocent – the animals – the film’s distributor (Source: Kino Muranów).

The film’s narrative was created from Antonina Żabińska’s memoirs (read by Maria Pakulnis), where she recalls the people and animals close to her, the situation at the ZOO and her writings about conditions in occupied Poland. As director Łukasz Czajka admits: “We reached the conclusion that we would fill in some missing elements with contemporary shots of the ZOO and that we would also reconstruct the reality, described in Antonina’s book, with scenes recorded with a camera using 8mm film” (Source: Onet.pl).

The film’s official premiere took place on 2nd September at the Warsaw ZOO. It will screen in cinemas from 6th September 2019. The movie is now available online.

“Of Animals and Men”, Poland 2019; script and direction: Łukasz Czajka; editing: Jakub Piątek; photography: Kacper Czubak; music: Marcin Masecki. The film is co-financed by the Polish Film Institute.

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See Also

An interiew with Zoo Holocaust Survivor Stefania Koenigswein and the Żabiński couple's daughter, Teresa Zawadzka, from the Oral History Collection of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews: