Cohen's two previous documentaries, Chaim Rumkowski and the Jews of Lodz and The Architecture of Doom, both dealt in various ways with the impact of Nazi ideology. But, as Homo Sapiens makes clear, it was not only the Nazis who believed that society was something to be cultivated like a garden. (Cohen locates the German notion of "race hygiene" in a context that also includes turn-of-the-century enthusiasms such as Jugendstil design and open-air nudism.) Actually, the two national cultures initially most impressed by eugenics were the United States, where by 1907 over 20 states had enacted compulsory sterilization laws (Cohen includes some amazing footage from the 1916 movie The Black Stork, made by and starring the American apostle of euthanasia, Dr. Harry Haiselden), and Sweden, which established the first government institute of race biology, effectively integrating eugenics into the social policies of the welfare state.
The Nazis were, however, the first political party to make "racial hygiene" a crucial part of their agenda. The contradiction between protecting family values and the need to breed the master race was resolved by focusing on negative eugenicsthat is, by eliminating the deformed and "subhuman." Positive eugenics were restricted to the aesthetic realm. It's almost a too perfect dichotomy that where the Soviets were fascinated by brains (collecting and preserving "genius" specimens for scientific study), the Nazis were obsessed with bodies. Race-based eugenics were naturally problematic in the multicultural Soviet Union. Cohen excerpts a 1926 Soviet film that argues, against Mendelism, for the inheritance of acquired characteristics. A cameo by Minister of Enlightenment Anatoli Lunacharsky adds to the authority; the Soviets ultimately identified all genetic research with fascism.
Homo Sapiens 1900
Written and directed by Peter Cohen
A First Run Features release
At the Screening Room Opens March 3
Deliberately paced and shot in solemn black and white, Homo Sapiens 1900 has an undeniable pathos. Cohen quotes Zola to the effect that the late 19th century's new biological sciences "belong just as much to the poet as the scientist." Self-conscious as it is, our species imagines ideals that cannot possibly be achieved.
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