Directed by Sasha Litvintseva and Beny Wagner, the UK/Dutch/German doc A Demonstration, which world-premiered in Berlinale Shorts, is described as a “monster film with no monsters.”
It is a complex and lyrical work that is inspired by “the existence of taxonomies of monsters at the heart of Early Modern European science, exploring and reinterpreting our way of seeing the natural world that is almost impossible to imagine from today’s vantage point.”
“Monsters were initially considered to be omens through which god sent people signs on how to act,” stresses co-director Wagner. “In this sense, the monstrous is in many ways about seeing and about the terms according to which we see. Although our understanding of monsters has changed dramatically since the early modern period, today’s monsters are still primarily a manifestation of how we see and choose to represent the world.”
“The word monster comes from the Latin ‘monstrare’ which means to reveal, show, demonstrate, hence our title, ‘A Demonstration’,” he adds.
With no dialogue and little by way of text other than a short establishing statement, the film transports us along dark caves and woods, into old lecture rooms where autopsies would once have been performed before we enter a realm akin to Gunther von Hagen’s macabre and sensationalist ‘Body Worlds’, all leading inexorably towards a final sequence in a rococo theatre where a monster in human form emerges from a collection of neatly amputed floating limbs, the whole presentation accompanied by an urgent, frenetic woodwind soundtrack.
“Rather than narrate a distant history, we have tried to create a journey for our viewers to feel with their entire sensory apparatus,” Wagner continues. “We designed the film as a series of rhythmic intensities, to be experienced through the whole body. We hope that our viewers approach the film without too many preconceived ideas of what a film should be and allow themselves to be guided by their intuition in a way that allows for new connections to be made between images, sounds and movement.”
So is it documentary or is it fiction? “We have difficulties defining the film’s genre. It was shot in the way one would shoot a documentary, in the sense that there was minimal alteration of the existing environments, and mostly involved observing things or people as they were. But it was edited in a very intuitive and playful way that didn’t at all correspond to the way things exist in space.
“We took every narrative liberty that occurred to us,” he concedes, “and felt no responsibility towards trying to objectively describe an environment, or a history, etc. In that sense, it’s very unlike documentary. It’s also not fiction because we didn’t invent anything. Maybe this reflects the subject matter – were these monsters observed documents or fiction? They’re somewhere in between.”
All the elements in the film together conspire to disorientate the viewer and to inspire a deep sense of the uncanny. We continually encounter evidence of our eventual demise, but monstrous elements determine that life remains extant, even after death, whether within our imagination or within our personal psychology.
“Some people seemed to have found it very scary! This wasn’t exactly our intention,” Wagner continues. “But it was our intention to instil a sense of the unknown into the things and places we shot, and the unknown is often scary – or scary films are about how the unknown is framed.
“The film is for everyone, but of course it’s different from what many people consider to be a film. Some people might feel antagonized because we don’t explicitly tell them how to feel. We want to create films that have all the emotional, psychological, physical intensity that every blockbuster has, but with very different tools (and resources of course).”