READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)

Reader recommendation by Simon Hyslop

DIRECTED BY: Andrey Iskanov

FEATURING: Tetsuro Sakagami, Yukari Fujimoto, Manoush, Elena Probatova

PLOT: War prisoners are subjected to various horrifying experiments in the Japanese Imperial Army’s infamous Unit 731 facility.

Still from Philosophy of a Knife (2008)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Between the dreamlike cinematography, the unconventional, fractious narrative, and the bizarre attempts to blend a documentary with an arthouse film, this is definitely among the least conventional works of World War II cinema.

COMMENTS: A few short years before the outbreak of World War II, one General Shiro Ishii of the Japanese Imperial Army—a man who possessed a fatal combination of power, patriotism, intelligence and absolutely no regard for human life—oversaw the construction of a military facility in the Chinese province of Manchuria. Officially registered as a water purification plant, this facility—Unit 731, as it would come to be known—housed not only military personnel, but several thousand Chinese and Soviet prisoners, and a team of some of Japan’s top scientists. Over the next few years, these prisoners would be subjected to a series of horrifying, inhumane experiments in the name of helping the Japanese war effort. Prisoners were infected with deadly diseases, exposed to bomb blasts, and amputated and dissected without anesthetic.

And thanks to vested Cold War interests on the part of the USA, most of the perpetrators of these atrocities would walk away unpunished, and go on to enjoy prosperous careers.

This is the story that 2008’s Philosophy of a Knife—from one of modern Russia’s resident oddball directors, Andrey Iskanov—tells. Or, at least, purports to tell.

There’s a lot that needs to be said about Philosophy of a Knife, mostly because there’s so much of it. The film clocks in at over four hours; and while, admittedly, there are instances when it’s acceptable for a film to do that, I’m not convinced that Knife is one of them.

If there’s a key mistake this film makes, it’s in its genre. The film, it seems, is making a bold attempt to blend an art film with a documentary, combining stock footage, interviews and voiceover with heavily stylized reenactments of the experiments conducted at Unit 731. And while this is a debatable issue, I can’t see that blend as other than doomed to failure, since those genres are, in my opinion, irrevocably opposed. After all, any documentary worth its salt is going to try and be objective; while art, in any form—in my opinion— is inherently subjective. At least, until we’ve invented painting robots.

But even a viewer who disagrees with that particular perspective will probably agree that, as a documentary, Philosophy of a Knife‘s efforts are half-hearted at best. The voiceover segments—narrated by what sounds like a castrated Robbie Williams—cover only the most basic elements of Unit 731 and its background history. The “interviews” (which, by the way, are of abysmal quality from a filmmaking perspective, with audio that sounds like it was recorded with tin cans and strings) are, in fact, one lengthy interview split up into segments. The interviewee, an elderly Russian doctor who rambles distractedly in a manner that reminded me of my grandfather recounting his navy days, seems to have had little direct involvement with Unit 731 other than living nearby at the time. Admittedly, it’s probably hard to find anyone directly involved with Unit 731 nowadays—much less anyone willing to talk about it—but still, I’ve yet to see a credible documentary with only one interviewee. At the very least, you’d think they could’ve found a history expert.

As a documentary, then, Philosophy of a Knife has almost no value. You’d get more from a Wikipedia page, honestly. It baffles me as to why that element was included at all, since all it does is bloat the film’s length. Contextualizing its subject matter was necessary, certainly, but it could’ve been done in a fraction of the time.

As an art film, however, the film can’t be dismissed quite as utterly.

The artiness, such as it is, is confined to the reenactments which make up most of the film. These are done in a heavily stylized and surrealistic manner, and in some ways, they work very well. Shot entirely in black and white, and without dialogue, these sequences are often heavily atmospheric, making great use of the setting (consisting primarily of dark corridors, dingy cells, frigidly clinical laboratories, and a snow-laden forest) and the music (which includes a broad variety of haunting melodies, including something my musically inclined friend tells me is called “trip-hop”) to create a wonderfully chilling atmosphere that could, if used differently, have made for a stunningly frightening film.

Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that Kinfe is less concerned with atmosphere than with its central subject matter. And its central subject matter, it soon becomes clear, is gore. Lots and lots of gore. Unit 731’s most gruesome experiments are recreated in excruciating detail: one man messily explodes in a high-pressure chamber, while another’s face is burned away with phosphorous. One woman’s flesh is peeled from her skull; another is subjected to a crude abortion, her fetuses placed in jars. All these experiments occupy the screen for minutes on end, and the camera lingers lovingly on their results.

I don’t mind gore in film. I don’t like it, but I can appreciate it when it has a purpose. Men Behind the Sun, another film concerned with Unit 731, was just as excruciatingly violent, and that film was also far from perfect. But, aside from the fact that it didn’t pretend to be a documentary, one can at least appreciate the context: at the time of its release, the Japanese government remained hesitant about acknowledging the existence of Unit 731, and the director, a Chinese child of the war, can perhaps be forgiven for wishing to make a hard-hitting statement on the subject.

It’s less easy to justify the violence of Philosophy of a Knife, which seems to exist primarily for its own sake. But even with this considered, I probably wouldn’t have minded it if it had been used a bit more intelligently. There were times when the violence was genuinely frightening, and it could’ve remained so if the film had been a bit less obsessed with showing every last bit of it. I have no issue with frankness when tackling a subject as grim as Unit 731. But invariably, the violence goes on far, far too long, hogging the film’s rambling four-hour screentime, ultimately losing any chance of being memorable or hard-hitting and simply becoming dull. The lingering camera shots, which could have been used to further the film’s promise of a chilling atmosphere—as a would have done—are instead used to linger on the violent scenes in a manner that drives them home so hard that they ultimately lose their impact. Yes, seeing a body being dissected is horrifying; but if you want to intensify that horror, you don’t do it by showing a coroner digging organ parts out with tongs and dropping them into dishes for five minutes. That’s boring. The film’s often embarrassing special effects don’t help on that front either, although again, they wouldn’t have mattered nearly as much if the camera hadn’t been so obsessed with showing them off.

Some directors, it seems, have still to learn that often—especially when dealing with such horrifying subject matter as this—implicitness can be more effective than explicitness. For me, the film’s brief scene of pale, emaciated, motionless corpses piled up in a cramped morgue spoke more to the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man than all the blood-drenched torture scenes combined.

And whereas Men Behind the Sun at least made an effort to insert some sort of narrative in between the grisliness and establish a purpose behind its own grim nature, Philosophy of a Knife‘s narrative, insofar as it had one, seems to exist for little reason beyond loosely stringing together a series of arty torture scenes. There are some loose threads concerning a Japanese nurse struggling with remorse and a Japanese soldier who develops affection for a Russian prisoner, both of which do give rise to some vaguely moving scenes; but ultimately, these aspects feel crudely shoehorned in, cropping up only occasionally, and contributing nothing noteworthy to the torture scenes the film is so dedicated to.

Ultimately, Philosophy of a Knife squanders a great deal of promise for the sake of turning itself into a surrealist take on Saw. I’m sure that’s appealing to someone out there; but for my part, it feels like an immense waste.

Perhaps I’m being just a little harsh. Philosophy of a Knife is flawed—enormously flawed—but amidst the four hours of bungling and wasted opportunity, it has its moments. And sometimes, those moments are striking. Director Andrey Iskanov had vision with this film; vague, largely misguided vision, but vision I can respect.

I can’t recommend this film, nor can I say I necessarily enjoyed it; but I can respect it.

If nothing else, this film made me realize one thing: there needs to be more surrealist cinema about human history. Nothing is more bizarre, after all, than the behavior of man.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I was reminded of Gibson’s Passion in that the movie takes an ambitious and difficult subject, then spends most of its time focusing only on gore. The cinematography sometimes makes this feel more like a surreal vision of extreme hell than a realistic disturbing docudrama, but this will definitely test anyone’s viewing endurance to its limits.“–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre (DVD)

(This movie was first nominated for review by Zelenc, who called it a film ” only for sick people….:D…and overweirdones,” and later by Cletus, who called it “Very very weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

5 thoughts on “READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)”

  1. I’ve been meaning to check this out. This director’s first movie, “Nails”, was both weird enough to warrant mention here, and succinct enough not to over-stay its welcome. Having devoted 6 hours of my life to the grisly visions of Aleksey German, I suppose another 4 for a compatriot of his might not be too much to ask.

  2. I’d say that German is (or, was) a very different kettle of fish — hyper-realistic vs. Iskanov’s dreamy post-modernism. Both are pretty bleak, though, if “Nails” is representative of the latter’s work. “Khrustalyov, My Car!” would be a good place to start before tackling “Hard to Be a God.”

    Both German and Iskanov are much harder on the eyes and ears than Tarkovsky; they present the world much more bleakly than Soviet Russia’s most poetical filmmaker.

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