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.
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.
Final Thoughts: 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.