We are at the zoo is an 1953 Film about a class of pioneers visiting the Leipziger Zoo in the German Democratic Republic. On their visit the class is being accompanied by an Off-Speaker, who comments on the action and introduces the animals while the pioneers walk through the park. In most cases this is done by using human institutions, concepts or focusing strongly on the special, sensational and entertaining traits of the animal. Most descriptions are very short and are followed by the happy or excited reactions of the children and their teacher.
The first station, after meeting each other, on their visit are the lions(Wir sind im Zoo, D: Bruno Kleberg, DDR 1953, TC 2:30). Their entrance is supported with dramatic music and growling. It is a rather short scene only giving the viewer a quick gaze at the animals and the speaker tells us that the male lion(TC 2:38) is envy that his wife’s attention is directed more towards the class and not towards him. But the tension is gone once the marriage-peace is restored. The music changes to a more happy tone and the viewer is presented a scene in which the male and female lions are huddling(TC 2:54).
This motive can be found in a similar fashion in the staging of the ice bears, although as a couple the special genders and roles are even stronger emphasized. The male bear “wants to bath, but his wife is coquettishly, like all ladies”(my transcription TC 11:47). As a result she wants to be flattered before bathing with the male bear. This adoption of a traditional, human gender concepts and rolles can be seen in various ways throughout the movie. As displayed in the previous example the female and male animals are usally displayed as spouses, by the commentar. Through using words like „Ehefrieden“(TC 2:47) „Gattin“(TC 2:42) or „Gemalin“(TC 11:51).
Like other documentaries the movie relies heavily on staging the animals or whole scenes to produce more interesting views. For instance a scene with some bears that are being visited by some dogs and later some monkeys results in an artificial chasing scene(TC 13:58). The funny music and the comments of the announcer create the lighthearted character of the scene, while this incident might not be as funny for the monkeys as the movie suggests. In another scene a turtle drops into an aquarium but it looks more like it is being thrown from beyond than simply swimming(TC 10:10), especially because it resembles a turtle from an earlier scene that was used by a warden to show the class. (TC 8:25).
Interestingly a lot of the animals are referred to as some form of artist. For example elephant „Kiri“ acts as a musician by playing the hand organ, which is mostly a display of his entertaining value for both pioneers as well as other viewers. (TC: 4:45). Likewise, the brown bears are doing tricks because they “got the information that the children are coming to visit them”. For their services, the animals are then being „payed„ with food by the visitors(TC 12:55).
Most of the children names aren’t mentioned. A prominent example of this is a kid that is only referred to as „der Dicke“(the chubby one) throughout the film. Likewise only a few of the animals are being introduced by their unique names, examples of this being elephant Kiri[…] also referred to as artist and patient) or the hippos Grete and Schwabbel.
But not all animals in the zoo are displayed as usfull or entertaining. For example the eagle, first described as „king of the air,“ is then characterized as an animal that grudges anything towards other animals. An attribute that is common for kings as the announcer tells us(TC 3:59). This is especially interesting as the eagle here is attributed such a negative character trait, while in the United States it is a symbol of freedom. Maybe this was not intended by Kleberg or the DEFA but it could be very well interpreted as a strike at American symbolism. The eagle doesn’t bring democracy and freedom (to the west), instead it grudges and denies other nations their prosperity.
Half-way throughout the film the director of the zoo, Schneider, gets introduced. With Schneider’s appearance the perspective of the movie shifts(TC 15:30). Schneider talks about the daily life in the zoo, which is imagined by the camera and an Off-Speaker with a more mature voice, marking the beginning of the more serious topics in the following.
The viewer is confronted with various topics such as the problems of the zoo, unoccupied cages and the polluted river(TC 17:28). In addition, Schneider presents a young lion. Almost like a trophy, he grabs he/she and displays it proudly for the camera, while the commentator tells us about the great achievements like the lion breeding of Schneider(TC: 18:25). Other topics are the planned anniversary and the future of the Leipziger Zoo as well as the status of the animal handlers. Unsurprisingly the image of the zoo and its director is overly positive. His knowledge and status are represented by letters from “all over the world that are asking for advice” (TC 17:58). The zoo itself is displayed throughout the cooperation with other zoos and shows us the seemingly great importance of the zoo and the international collaboration as well as the collaboration between the two German states(TC 21:00). In a way, “Wir sind im Zoo” could be seen as more like an advertisement for the Leipziger Zoo than a documentary.
The topic of animal care focuses mostly on the medical treatment of animals(TC 19:30). A dog acting as a fostress for a young lions and the treatment of animals suggest the well-being of the animals in the zoo, although it is never explained what the wardens and veterinarians are doing exactly and why it benefits the animals. Instead, the focus is more on the resistance against the treatment (which is for their own well being, of course) of the different animals. Patient Kiri is patient, while the yak has to be forced for its own good(TC 20:22). This means lashing the yak to the fence with the help of several men to cut its hooves with pliers.
Shortly before the end we return to the pioneers who moved on to visit the petting zoo(TC 24:33). Here the announcer tells us they are becoming friends among themselves, but also with science and the animals. Finally the movie concludes with a scene were the kids are riding on chaises pulled by ponies singing happily about their visit.
In conclusion the animals in Wir sind im Zoo are not only being framed by their cages. The view is directed through the architecture of the cages and in addition by the camera. These Animals act unlike wild animals, instead they are influenced through the staging and displaying of their cages that change their existence. They are former edited by the filmmakers which are influenced by specific GDR filmmaking regulations and conventions. In the early 1950ies the need of the viewers for light entertainment was at a peak, because it was being ignored by most of the GDR productions at that time. We are at the zoo, tries to appeal to these needs by presenting simple, idealized animals images. To make things more interesting the animals act as musicians, patients, couples or bad kings. Furthermore the animals feed the needs of the filmmakers to promote the status of the zoo and its director Schneider and the GDR as a subject of international collaboration.
Sabine Nessel, Animal medial – Zur Inszenierung von Tieren im Zoo und Kino, in: Sabine Nessel u.a. (Hgg.), Der Film und das Tier. Klassifizierung, Cinephilien, Pilosophien, Berlin 2012, S. 33-45.
Jonathan Burt, animals in film, London 2002, S.25-41.
Wolfgang Mühl-Benninghaus, Deutsch-deutsche Unterhaltung im Nachkriegsdeutschland, in: Irmbert Schenk (Hg.), Medien der 1950er Jahre (BRD und DDR), Marburg 2012 (Augenblick 54/55), S.155-169.