As film fans, it's prudent to be wary of the "-est" tag. You know the one - The Blair Witch Project is the "scariest" movie of all time, Borat is the "funniest" comedy of all time, etc. This is especially true of gorefests, the fluid-soaked examples of cinematic arterial spray that make some macabre fans jump for joy, while others remain skeptical...and queasy. Whenever someone pronounces that fright flick X is the "nastiest", or "grossest", or "bloodiest" ever made, certain warning signals start firing off in the seasoned scary movie maven's mind. Either the splatter is nothing but overhyped hokum, or the perspective/tolerance of the person making the declaration is under question. In the case of Philosophy of the Knife, however, there is a clear "-est" classification that can't be questioned. While this fact-based geek show is indeed disgusting (perhaps the greatest music video Nine Inch Nails never made), it's also one of the "creepiest" illustrations of this kind of cruelty in recent memory.
Made up of three distinct parts, Philosophy of a Knife uncovers the wartime horrors committed by the Japanese prior to and during World War II, specifically focusing on the biological and chemical weapons lab known as Unit 731. During the course of the Asian conflict between the Russians, the Chinese, and the Imperial Island Nation, prisoners were systematically tortured and killed in order to collect information on pain, physical tolerances, and the overall effectiveness of specific death techniques. One facet of the film is recounted by former medical doctor and military translator Anatoly Protasov. His anecdotal evidence is startling. There is also real documentary footage of the people and places involved. Finally, the movie 'recreates' some of the specific crimes committed at Unit 731, including vivisection, dental extractions, frost bite/flesh tolerances, abortion, phosphorus powder burns, ammunition trials, poison gas effectiveness, depressurization, and various kinds of disease. While we hear from some of the captors, complaining about the horrific experiments conducted, there is also the standard "following orders" concession. No matter the excuses, what happened in Unit 731 was truly sickening...and we get to see a large piece of it.
Four hours of war atrocities. Four hours of interview material mixed with actual documentary footage and some unsettling 'recreations'. Four hours (actually, four hours and twenty nine minutes) for writer/director Andrev Iskanov to condemn the Japanese for their experiments against Russian and Chinese citizens in the pursuit of their pre and post World War II goals. Poised precariously between informational and exploitative, Philosophy of a Knife is sleaze as seriousness, the grindhouse experience given a literal visual interpretation. Set up like a disturbing symphony (dialogue, fact-based material, dramatics, gore) of man's inhumanity to man, this based on a true story slide into repugnance is informative, appalling, and somewhat pat. We know there is no way we will sympathize with the doctors and nurses, their hands bloodied by years of grotesque medical experimentation. And since Iskanov is presenting this material sans cinematics (no real characterization, no single narrative arc), there is little else here beyond the geek show parameters. But just like any case of horrific history unveiled, our morbid curiosity takes over. Four hours plus later, we feel aghast for prying.
It's not like Iskanov is showing us something we haven't seen before. The Nazi record of concentration camp carnage is just a History Channel click away. And since the non-Q&A material is rendered in stark black and white, there's not a lot of biological reality to the torture. But thanks to his skill in composition and tone, because of the way he provides disturbing context prior to each illustrated act, this director truly disturbs. Philosophy of a Knife is undeniably creepy, Iskanov's deliberate approach slowly undermining our resolve. Granted, there is little to celebrate in watching someone have each one of their teeth systematically pulled from their mouth, or seeing a slop jar abortion (complete with random baby parts). And this is one director who frequently dilly dallies around the action, intercutting medical text book illustrations and random close-ups to offset the splatter. In color, this would all play out like a Grand Guignol joke, streams of blood shooting across the screen like some lame 3D joke. But in monochrome, devoid of such shock value, the images have a chance to sink in. They feel news-real. Suddenly, even in "recreation" mode, we are reminded of history and the horrors that accompany it...and it's not a pleasant experience.
Could Iskanov have whittled away some of the excess to make his movie - dare it even possible - more accessible? Did the last 45 minutes have to consist almost exclusively of Anatoly Protasov talking about the post-War trials and tribulations revolving around the discovery of Unit 731. Of course, Philosophy of a Knife warns us that this will be a 'complete' history, including all the details such a description implies, and one imagines that this film could have been far more disgusting in what it depicted (there's even a hint of such vileness as Protasov explains a shrapnel test that, luckily, is not then illustrated). Unlike other infamous gross-outs - Guinea Pig: Flowers of Flesh and Blood, Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead, Jörg Buttgereit's notorious Nekromantik - there is a method and meaning to all the sluice, and in combination with Iskanov's stylistic choices, Philosophy of a Knife is as unsettling as it is oddly satisfying. Some may feel pangs of previous She Wolf of the SS excess here, and question the validity of everything depicted. But no one is challenging whether war is Hell, and embellished or not, the truth about Unit 731 is implicit in every frame of this film.
Offered by Unearthed Films in a surreal 1.33:1 full screen transfer, Philosophy of a Knife definitely suffers from a schizophrenic image. Naturally, the old stock footage is grainy and suspect, but the color video interview with Protasov is also off, cloudy and occasionally fuzzy. Strangely enough, when the material moves outside, the picture looks fine. As for the monochrome sequences, the black and white is sharp and highly saturated. On occasion, the digital to film update looks fantastic. At other instances, the subtle use of greenscreen and CGI show through. Lack of an anamorphic widescreen option aside, this is a decent and professional presentation.
Sadly, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is murky at best. The narration is frequently lost in sound effect foley and the musical score goes missing quite often. The Q&A is always understandable, though Protasov speaks in his native tongue, requiring subtitles. On the whole, the aural aspect of the release is perhaps its weakest technical element.
Here's where Unearthed Films earns our digital dollars. Not only do they present the four hour plus version of Philosophy of a Knife completely uncut (including cockroach coitus - don't ask), but they throw in a bevy of bonus features as well. Spread out over two discs, there's an introduction by Iskanov and his producers, a magnificent Making-Of, a wonderful collection of deleted scenes, some disgusting color footage of a makeshift morgue (very disturbing) and an interview with actress Manoush (helmed by none other than Debbie Rochon - yeah!). There are also some music videos, a chance to hear the soundtrack isolated from the images, some trailers and a still gallery. Together, they help put Philosophy of a Knife into perspective and provide an intriguing window into how this movie was researched and put together.
While doing some research for the review, this critic ran across an interesting recent article (June, 2008) about filmmaker Andrev Iskanov. Seems the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, visited the director in association with the information and images he offered in this film. They were looking to confiscate any materials he had used in connection with its creation. After a warrantless search and five days of detention (which he signed off on post-incident, under duress), he was released. Some of his work was returned. Clearly, someone in authority believes that the subject matter inherent in Philosophy of a Knife will be damaging to their country's international image. While it may not work as a standard entertainment, it does present a compelling, and often difficult to watch, experience. Therefore, while it won't be for everyone, the film still earns a Highly Recommended rating. There is something primal, almost unconsciously unnerving about what Iskanov accomplishes here. We've seen these kind of ersatz exploitation beats before. But this time, they seem to have the aesthetic power to stick. This is a movie that will haunt you for days afterward.
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