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.