Anatomy (2000) – Review
When one thinks of German horror what usually comes to mind are the pioneering films of the early expressionist movement or, at the other end of the spectrum, The Human Centipede. Dig a little deeper and you’ll be rewarded with films like Anatomy.
Anatomy tells the story of Paula Henning (Franka Potente) and her new friend Gretchen (Anna Loos) attending Germany’s most intensive medical course at Heidelberg University. When the body of a man she they met on the train turns up on a dissection table Paula begins to investigate just how he got there. In doing so she uncovers a psychotic, ritualistic group of unethical experimenters and researchers; the Anti-Hippocratic Society.
It’s a fascinating scenario and the medical setting filled with corpses is ripe with potential for all manner of unpleasantries. Unlike the similarly medical-research-themed The Human Centipede, Anatomy doesn’t exploit the situation to simply convey graphic and obscene imagery relentlessly to the audience.
Instead Anatomy plays strongly on the professionalism and sterility of the experiments, playing with the audience’s guilty pleasure of watching televised surgeries for the horrific experience rather than the educational content. It does so through restraint. No blood sprays from open incisions, intestines aren’t ripped out, it’s all done exactly as a surgeon would perform it. As the victims have been rendered incapable of retaliating against their surgeons, Anatomy manages to pull off some of the most chillingly nonviolent violence seen on the screen. Everything is performed quietly, effortlessly, without sound and with little motion.
It’s this sense of sterility and detachment that pervades the entire film and really makes it a stand out. Writer Peter Engelmann and writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky brilliantly convey the cold, emotionless and insular world of Heidelberg University and make it believable that it would attract the slightly odd selection of characters we’re given.
These characters are themselves another standout of Anatomy. Franka Potente is great as lead character Paula; she manages to make her likable and relatable despite her pointedly detached demeanour. She’s written in the way that many great characters are, full of contradictions hinting at internal struggle and from the moment of meeting her we’re pulled around by this internal struggle; one moment she’s the only one of her family visiting her dying grandfather, the next she’s accidentally telling her mother she’s thrown her career away before deliberately telling her father she wants more than the chaotic, poxy little family practice he’s running. It’s a fine symbiosis of excellent writing and excellent acting, allowing the moments when she is in direct peril to grip us more.
At the other end of the spectrum is her friend Gretchen, who seems to be operating at both extremities of detachment and passion at once. She’s man and sex obsessed yet sees them as nothing more than simple, biological mechanics. Her ability to wolf down oysters on a date while describing accidentally dropping brains, and her regular habit of making men go limp when she starts talking about burst prostate glands?, is toe-curling and cringeworthy.
You can tell Ruzowitzy is also an avid fan of horror films, as it’s through Gretchen he plays with the audience’s pre-existing notions of horror movie gender politics. Gretchen is, for all intents and purposes, the confident jock/stud character who uses, abuses and looses men; men which then turn up as snivelling wrecks at Paula’s door harping on about how she doesn’t love them anymore. It’s a refreshing, genuinely interesting inversion of the usual boy/girl dynamics of teenage horror characters.
And it’s through Gretchen’s behaviour we discover the films principle villain, Hein (Benno Furmann). While there have certainly been more visually interesting horror villains, the fact he comes from amongst them is effective and it’s not something we see coming. Throughout the film we’ve been presented with Professor Grombek (Traugott Buhre) as the main antagonist, for the Hein to suddenly come out of his weeping, lovelorn persona is a real misdirection success.
He’s also one of those rare horror villains who benefits from the fact we see his transformation. To witness him become this monster, growing more and more out of control is genuinely unsettling. Furmann is brilliant in the role, being able to convey a true insanity behind the eyes of an outwardly calm man.
The wider villain, the Anti-Hippocratic Society. Well, that’s just a great idea for an evil organisation isn’t it? Surgeons who experimentally operate on and kill subjects to gain faster, better research results. The group manages to play on several elements at once. Firstly, their long history, which apes the Freemasons with their robes, lodges and strange rituals that are perfectly at odds with their forward looking concerns. Secondly they are heavily tied into the Third Reich’s human experimentations and in a German film set in Heidelberg University, it adds a very real, queasy edge to the group. Thirdly, it lends itself to very dark thoughts, daring the audience into bleak realisations that their methods do, indeed, produce results.
All these elements come together to form one of the most precise and well reasoned debates in horror being discussed and dissected before your eyes; where does the balance lie between passion and detachment in medicine? The Anti-Hippocratic Society, represents the detached approach; killing to further medicine for others. Gretchen mirrors this, placing no emotion on biology; both ultimately go against their own aims. Hein is the passionate end of scale, consumed by a zealous desire to protect and further his research until it becomes self-destructive and out of control. And finally we have Paula, whose internal conflict demonstrated right at the beginning of Anatomy, between duty to medical research and duty to caring for others, mirrors her ability to employ both ruthlessness and compassion during the finale and thus escape.
And it’s this clever, surgeon like dissection of ideas and ethics, played out through clever use and twisting of horror tropes, that makes Anatomy a hidden gem worth searching for.
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