First Run Features // 1998 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Neal Solon (Retired) // February 11th, 2005
"The image of man betrays that which distinguishes him from all other beings: his ability to observe himself. It is man's fate that he not only rejoices in what he sees, but is displeased by his faults -- physical and mental."
In 1944, the Nazi Empire fell at the hands of the allies. The world saw for the first time what Hitler and the Nazis had done: Convincing the German people that Jews and other social outcasts were not only different, but actually polluting the German race. Hitler had taken this idea to its most extreme and had orchestrated the genocide of people who were considered less than ideal -- less than German. Though his actions were unquestionably extreme and horrific, Hitler's ideas about racial purity were far from original or unique. In fact, they were widely accepted by the world's scientific community.
Many students of the history of World War II find Nazi Germany and the atrocities that took place therein gruesomely fascinating. We are constantly admonished to never forget the tragedies of the Holocaust and of the Second World War. Less studied are the mainstream ideas that contributed to Nazi policies of institutionalized murder in the name of "race hygiene."
Eugenics, or racial hygiene, was a well-known "science" when the Nazis co-opted it for their political use in the years leading up to the Second World War. The modern eugenics movement was founded in England in the late 1800s by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin who is better known for coining the phrases "nature vs. nurture," and for developing the fingerprinting techniques still used by law enforcement officers today. By the early 1900s, eugenics was widely practiced throughout the western world. There was even talk of creating a national eugenics register in the United States, to maintain information about all United States citizens and their malformities. This would help insure that any propagation of the human race worked toward evolution rather than devolution.
The ideas of eugenics and "race hygiene" were first introduced in Germany around the turn of the century by Alfred Ploetz, who proposed that a panel of doctors should decide whether a newborn baby should be allowed to live, based on its likelihood of being completely healthy and normal. Those babies not strong enough to survive without medical attention would be left alone to die. Those that did not meet the panel of doctors' criteria would be quickly exterminated.
Homo Sapiens 1900 traces eugenics from its founding with these two men through its development and ultimately its acceptance and abuse by the National Socialist party.
The first things to confront viewers of Homo Sapiens 1900 are black
and white photographs of people. Who the people are is unimportant, and the film
makes no effort to inform you of their identities. What is important is that
they were photographed, and that they were not photographed for memories or for
posterity -- they were photographed so that they could be studied.
Director Peter Cohen's film is full of such pictures. The subjects may be clothed or nude, male or female, adult or child, but they are all nameless. They are to the viewer nothing more than they were to the scientists who took the pictures -- subjects for study. Their importance quickly becomes clear as the narrator recounts the Frankenstein story and man's fascination with self-perfection. The film that ensues is essentially an hour and a half essay about the history of eugenics, tracing its origins in Europe through its spread throughout the world, to its adoption by the first political party with race hygiene firmly at the center of their plans -- the Nazis.
Though the cover of Homo Sapiens 1900 features Nazi imagery and pictures that recall Hitler and the Holocaust, the Nazis are not the focus of this documentary. Instead, it is the history of ideas that have, after the fact, become inexorably linked with Hitler and his party. This distinction is not easily seen until one gets into the film.
First Run Features has packaged the DVD to capitalize on American fascination with the tragedies of the Holocaust. In much the same way, filmmaker Peter Cohen artificially lends gravity to the story of eugenics through his filmmaking techniques. Unfortunately, his efforts are transparent and lacking in subtlety. They do little but detract from the film. For example, it seems obvious that Cohen wants the viewer to feel uncomfortable throughout the movie. The soundtrack is primarily composed of dissonant, Cageian bangings on a rattling piano. This dissonance is used for emphasis, underscoring the thoughts of the narrator, but also to abruptly end vast silences.
The silences are another thing. They are not only aural, but visual. The viewer spends an inordinate amount of time staring at a black, imageless screen, being occasionally jarred by the sound of the piano. Again, it seems that this was to emphasize what Cohen was trying to say than the words themselves impart. Instead, it manages to make this relatively short film drag on for an eternity.
The film has an interesting, unfamiliar story to tell, but those telling it do not make the best use of the medium. Like many recent documentaries, Homo Sapiens 1900 relies on archival photographs, video footage and artifacts rather than "talking heads" to tell the story. While this method has worked for some filmmakers, Cohen fails to elevate the story beyond what you could find in a book. All that Cohen's film does that a book could not is superimpose the text and the images so that the viewer must process them simultaneously. While this could arguably be true of other documentaries, rarely has it seemed so apparent.
What's more, Homo Sapiens 1900 suffers from a sub par release on DVD. Certainly, some lack of attention to the extras is to be expected as this is a niche title with a relatively small market. But at least the audio and video should be of decent quality, right? Wrong. The image quality is a mixed bag from the start, as the film uses a variety of sources such as archival film footage and the "oh-so-meta" still shots of still shots, but the quality is excusable because of the nature of the sources.
Another problem is a constant rectangular digital flickering in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. It is one of those things that you may not notice at first, but once you do, it is impossible to ignore. Additionally, every time the aforementioned Cageian banging occurs on a black screen, unintentional light waves appear in the image. The wavering black further depletes the effectiveness of this quiet time, which Cohen likely intended for processing and contemplating the information presented.
The audio, while less distracting, has problems of its own. The narration is presented effectively, and is always clear, but the soundtrack is uneven. Clipping and distortion frequently occur, consistent with audio levels beyond what the equipment used to record it can handle. It's an annoyance, at best. At worst, it's an intermittent distraction.
Rounding out this presentation are sparse extras. The two most meager are a set of trailers and a set of "Also of Interest..." film recommendations for other First Run Features films. The third and final extra is at least pertinent: A collection of archival photographs (of both scientists involved in the study of eugenics and of people being studied) as well as snapshots of studies and other presentations of the ideas of eugenics. At just eighteen photographs, the collection is brief but interesting.
Though this review does nothing but lambaste Homo Sapiens 1900 and its presentation on DVD, the film is not without merit. Eugenics is interesting. It is pertinent still today, as people argue whether inherent differences exist between races, genders, or even twins. The question is whether genetics determines who we are, or whether we are products of our surroundings.
This question informs discussions about weight loss, education, and social welfare -- and yet the position that genetics can predispose groups of people to be better or worse at something is still taboo, perhaps because of how people like Hitler have abused such ideas. The minute we attribute greatness and failure to genetics, ignoring our own faults, we start down a slippery slope of self-importance and "scientific" supremacy. This is scary.
The film tries hard to make this connection. It falters by not letting the evidence speak for itself, instead placing the burden of proof on the soundtrack and deliberate pacing. The information might have been more effectively conveyed through another medium.
Charles Davenport, the founder of the eugenics movement in the United States, once said "If man could be induced to fall in love intelligently -- if human matings could be placed upon the same level as horse breeding, the most progressive revolution in history could be achieved." If Charles Davenport had gotten his way, you'd be in a nationwide eugenics registry. If I had my way, this would film would be a ten-page journal article with lots of pictures. You can't win them all.
Homo Sapiens 1900 is sentenced to an eternity in the Registry of Films and DVDs That Might Have Some Merit but That Judge Solon Will Never Watch Again. First Run Films will be held for further questioning before the court makes any recommendations on the proper propagation of the DVD.
Review content copyright © 2005 Neal Solon; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Archival Photo Gallery
* Also of Interest... (Film Recommendations)