Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Homo Sapiens 1900

Homo Sapiens 1900 is a documentary made in 1998 by Swedish documentarian Peter Cohen that traces the history of the Eugenics movement in Europe, Asia and North America in the 20th Century. It is a powerful document of a hideous practice fueled by crackpot science that led to over 65,000 forced sterilizations in 33 states in America and over 400,000 in Germany, before providing an ideological and pseudo-scientific justification for the systematized mass murder that became what is now known as the Holocaust.

It is also one of the most joyless experiences I have ever had watching a film.

I don't say that because of its subject, although it is admittedly a joyless subject, but because of its style, its technique. Cohen interviews not one person, shows not one re-enactment, offers not one hint of insight. For one and a half hours the screen simply shows old grainy, damaged photos and occasionally a film clip while a narrator simply reads a lecture on the history of eugenics. Essentially it is a 90 minute photo album, a virtual reality textbook chapter. Oh, and then there's the black spaces.

Throughout the film the narration is only very occasionally punctuated by music and that music in merely two or three chords played on a piano. Two or three of the most somber, sullen, soul-sucking chords ever written. When a section of the lecture ends the screen goes black. A chord, maybe two will be heard. And the screen stays black. And silent. For ten seconds? No. Fifteen? Nope. Twenty? Uh-uh. My God, twenty-five!? Still not there. The correct answer is thirty seconds. The film is filled with these thirty second dead zones. As I said, this film is a powerful document but it is only so because of its subject matter. The film itself, its style, will test your very will to stay conscious.

The documentary lecture covers the history of the Eugenics movement from Charles Davenport in America to the Nazi Machine in Germany. In the course of this it focuses on the debate between the Mendelists (named for Gregor Mendel) who understood heredity to be carried in the genes, and that any changes would occur over vast expanses of time; and the Lamarckists (named for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) who believed that something one learns tomorrow could actually be written into their genetic code and passed on to their offspring a year hence. The Lamarckists seem dimwitted to the educated mind of today but at the time genetics were not as widely understood. It was this group that also believed that despite evidence to the contrary, a nation could rid itself of the unintelligent or the physically deformed. Even at the time, according to the documentary lecture as well as abundant information available online, they were many intelligent biologists desperately trying to explain that geniuses could be born to people of average or below average intelligence just as easily as a child with a mental disability could be born to a physically fit thinker of the highest order. The idea of stupidity in the abstract reproducing itself out of control may make humorous fodder for a movie like Idiocracy but in reality offspring are as often remarkably different from their parents as they are the same. Eugenics is crackpot science that does nothing but sterilize people against their will and in extreme cases, murders them.

And this is all very deep and complex and worthy of study if only to realize how far the unresearched guesswork of a group of people convinced of their own superiority can go and how dangerous it can become. But this documentary isn't the place to go for those complexities or their depth. In researching the facts of this film after watching it I found myself much more absorbed in reading about Charles Davenport and compulsory sterilizations in the United States than anything I felt watching the film. I'm not giving it a negative review mind you, it's worth seeing for the information provided, scant as it is, and the bleak tone does help to hammer the point home. I am simply stating up front that if this subject has any interest for you this film will provide only the slightest glance at the history of it, and sans interviewees or the testimony of victims or perpetrators, no real insights. It's a lecture, and a fairly good one but not much more. For real insights you'll just have to do the research yourself.


Ed Howard said...

Sounds horrible, actually. Sometimes filmmakers seem to think that their subject is just *so* important, *so* serious, that they can't risk mucking it up with anything like style or form or anything like that. No, much better to lecture the audience, bludgeoning them into agreement by sheer blunt force. I have little patience for that approach; I go to movies for art, not education. The two can (and should) go together, of course, but if I'm just looking to be educated about a topic I'll read a book. I *am* interested in -- and horrified by -- the history of eugenics, but I doubt I'll be watching this one.

Fox said...

I don't know much about Cohen (background, etc.) but this sounds like he is a "lecturer" first and filmmaker second.

I get the same impression with a lot of the conspiracy docs that have trickled out over the past few years. They use "film" as a pipeline to get their information or opinions out and don't respect the form itself.

It's the YouTube viral-video-as-poltical-activism syndrome, I tell ya. Now, Homo Sapiens 1900 was pre-YouTube, but it sounds as if like it comes from the same type of place.

Greg said...

Ed and Fox - It's funny because my sole positive recommendation is for the info itself but then I say you'll get better info researching it yourself. When I read reviews after watching it they were all positive and glowing and all mentioned the same things, as if they were copying each other (which I kind of suspect they were). I think they were afraid to comment on the style because the subject matter was so serious. One of them was The New York Times even.

In this doc there is a brief section on Chicago doctor Harry Haiseldon who back in 1916 let babies die that were severely deformed, rather than perform life-saving operations. That sounds pretty bad. The doc shows some pics of him, clips from a silent he was in about the practice and then... nothing. That's it. It just moves on. Now here's the thing: When I researched the good doctor I found a 1917 NYT article on him and read it. It detailed how he indeed let some babies die that were born without skulls, had hearts outside their bodies, etc. Life-saving surgery would have kept them going for maybe a few days or if they lived, as the Doctor himself says in the article, they probably would never even get to the point where they could eat without assistance. Now, the documentary makes it appear as if the babies are coming out with a cleft lip or a club foot and Dr Haiseldon lets 'em die. The reality is quite different. I would have LOVED to actually see two experts discuss the practice, one on the side of Haiseldon, one on the side of 'save every life.'

I would also have loved to have seen interviews with black men and women who were sterilized WITHOUT THEIR KNOWLEDGE when they went into hospitals for other surgeries. Many of these people had this done until the late fifties so plenty would have been available for the doc. But nope, nothing.

Like I said, it's joyless.

Fox said...


Those slights and inconsistencies you mention, I think, echo your sentiment that it's better to research these things yourself (and also Ed's comment that he would rather read a book) instead of simply relying on the film. This is largely why I dislike many politically motivated documentaries or documentaries with an agenda.

Of course, these types of docs can serve as a nice jumping off point, but I rarely come across one that I consider to be good art.

This is similar to the recent appointment of John P. Holdren to the office of Science & Technology. You have people in the extreme, like Alex Jones, saying that Holdren wants to sterilize us with chemicals in our water and vaccines, but from what I've looked at in his past writings thus far (which is very little, mind you) I just see kicked around theories of population control. Now, I personally find those kind of theories to be disturbing, but they're just thoughts, not policy, and haven't see anything to suggest that Holdren will be castrating us in the near future either.

But an Alex Jones, like Cohen, isn't going to lay that out for you.

Greg said...

Yes, and that's something that bothers me about any doc where after only a few casual minutes of searching you find multitudes of locations with information elaborating on something in the doc that was made to sound far worse than it was.

Fox said...

You'd think most people would do their own homework after watching a doc., but I'm not so sure how many people actually do.

Greg said...

I do it while watching the documentary sometimes, but then I'm pretty anal about history.

Jason Bellamy said...

I do it while watching the documentary sometimes, but then I'm pretty anal about history.

Pun intended, I assume.

Ed Howard said...

Hah! I'm glad I'm not the only one who did a double take on the sexual double entendre there. Nothing puts me in the mood like eugenics documentaries. Oh baby.

Greg said...

Birds do it
Bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it
Let's take it up the rear.

Fox said...

Nothing puts me in the mood like eugenics documentaries. Oh baby....

But hey, eugenicists probably really love the promotion of anal, right?? I mean, it's the perfect way to penetrate without the risk of conceiving.

BLH said...

Face fucking? Rear taking-it-up?

When did Cinema Styles become the Def Jam Comedy Hour?

Greg said...

Russell Simmons is huge financial contributor to the blog. Sometimes you got to please the money men.

Feta said...

I have to say, an excerpt of a musical number from 42nd Street was perhaps the last thing I was expecting to find in a documentary about Eugenics.

Greg said...

Feta, you've seen it! That was the highlight by far. I wish there had been more of that. And of course, actual interviews and insight.