In 1957, Soviet scientists sent an 11-pound mongrel into space. The dog’s name was Laika, and she survived less than seven hours; once the capsule overheated, her lifeless body kept revolving around the Earth, while her spirit, legend has it, returned to the streets of Moscow where she’d been found. Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter’s Space Dogs begins where the legend ends, conjuring an intimate and immersive look at Laika’s successors, the stray dogs roaming the outskirts of Moscow. It singles out two mutts and follows them around the city, the lens just a few inches away from their noses. And yet, even as it narrows the gap between humans and animals to an almost disturbing extent, Space Dogs never threatens to humanize its four-legged heroes. Instead, it chooses to subvert the anthropocentric gaze of so many “animal movies” before it, trailing behind its subjects in a journey that both looks and feels as if it were shot from their own point of view.
That’s because visually, Space Dogs embraces what feels like a canine grammar. Yunus Roy Imer’s camera never rises above dog’s eye level, so close to and in synch with the mongrels it ends up moving like them, running after smells and noises and leads. But if the lens stays grounded, the film keeps looking skyward, intercutting the two mutts’ peregrinations with archival footage of the first experiments with non-human astronauts. There are space dogs, of course, but also glimpses of other illustrious space travelers, such as Ham, the three-year-old chimp sent into space by the States in 1961, or the first earthlings to journey around the moon – two Russian steppe tortoises. And so Space Dogs cartwheels across the terrestrial and astral, a mystifying dance where images of the film’s Muscovite “leads” scavenging for food jostle with black-and-white footage of their ancestors, canine or otherwise, plugged to needles and oxygen masks, and breath-taking vistas from outer space.
This accounts for the haunting beauty that radiates all through Space Dogs. In its unflinching study of the violent ways humans occupy space, Kremser and Peter suggest the distance between us and the cosmos is no larger––and no less mysterious––than the gap that separates us from non-human earthlings. In a cold late November morning, Kremser, Peter, and I met in Tallinn to chat about their fulminating work.
The Film Stage: Apparently the idea of turning this into a space dog story wasn’t there from the beginning; you two were thinking about a rather different type of documentary…
Elsa Kremser: Well, in the beginning we just wanted to have the dogs in focus, and give a different perspective on the world that way. We watched so many films with animals and started to wonder if there was any out there that was taking other species seriously, and not just vases to put human stuff inside. We often had that feeling about films with animals. And we wanted to make an anti-“animal movie,” so to speak.
It didn’t really strike me a movie about Moscow either.
Levin Peter: Oh no. See, in the beginning we were very radical. We were fresh off film school, we thought everything would be open to us. We decided this was going to be the first film we’d do as a duo, the first in which we’d be equal: both of us directing, both of us producing. We’d already worked together for ten years. And we thought OK, dedicating a film to a group of animals was going to be a huge challenge, but we wanted to have no humans at all. No words spoken. A different approach.
Kremser: We even imagined a scene in which there’d just be lots of shadows of dogs, and you’d be hearing their sounds, their noises. We’d pictured it like, if you sit in the cinema for 10 minutes, and it’s dark all around you, that way you could just feel them. But obviously we knew we needed something to bring the audience there. I grew up with dogs, and Levin would always tell me that people don’t read dogs the way I do. The challenge was to bring the audience as close to them as possible.
How did the writing unfold? As in, logistically, how much time did you spend on it?
Peter: It was super long [laughs]. We had to search for the right topics: the story with the monkey, the story with the turtles, some stories with the soviet space dogs. And even when we found those stories, we didn’t know how to tell them yet. It was totally open.
Kremser: As for the dialogues, we had an idea about how the voiceover would be like. Something in between Terry Pratchett and something more fairytale-like, like some old Russian tale. But we didn’t really know how to put it on paper. And then, in the middle of our research, we got hold of the diaries of the Soviet scientists who experimented on and worked with the dogs. The way they talked, the way they wrote their journals––it all had a fairytale quality already.
Reading those diaries, did you feel those scientists experimenting with dogs were struggling with some moral questions of their own?
Peter: No, it was a weird mixture of pure heroism and pure science. And this is what we found so interesting with respect to our own writing. Those diaries gave us guidelines on how to tell our film. Because we remind the audience of what happened. Those dogs weren’t just testing objects, they became heroes. And this way of turning dogs into heroes is evident all through their journals. Anytime they’d describe situations in which it was obvious that these animals were being harmed, they’d do their best to remind us, readers, that the dogs somehow knew that they had to suffer for the sake of their nation. It was very subtle, but it’d always be there. Even an animal feels that the nation needs it.
This reminds me of what is possibly one of the funniest lines in your film––when the voiceover tells us the dogs, to be selected for the space program, had to meet three criteria. They had to be obedient, brave, and beautiful, so as to truly embody the spirit of the nation. The dogs you guys follow most certainly are photogenic…
Kremser: Oh yeah! [laughs] You’re right about the comparison. After all, the Russians chose Laika for her looks. She was black and white, you see, and they thought it’d be easier to print her image on newspapers. And as we began scouting for dogs in Moscow, we did the same thing. We wanted them to be unique, so that the audience wouldn’t mix them up.
Peter: We acted like those scientists, to some extent. We were filmmakers, and we chose our characters, the right dogs, depending on whether they’d meet certain criteria. And that’s the big tragedy of it all. We began to realize that the whole space exploration project was just entertainment. The monkey shipped into space by the US, pure entertainment. Even in Russia, they ended up turning the dogs into heroes. Did you know that after Laika’s mission the Russians began teaching young children how to respect street dogs, and be nice to them?
I did not know that.
Peter: Well, they’d suffered for the country, after all. They were heroes, and needed to be treated accordingly.
We spoke about the scientists’ ethics, but I was wondering how you guys addressed similar concerns. How close did you allow yourself to be with those dogs? Surely for dog persons such as yourselves setting boundaries must have been a little problematic.
Kremser: We had one rule. We would not give them food. Because we didn’t want to make them dependent on us. Obviously we also tried to lead a bit––because at the beginning they would just run away. But after a few weeks, they’d start waiting for us around the corner, so that we could follow. I think they just realized that the new part of their pack was too slow, so they had to wait for us… But by the end of those twelve weeks of shooting, it’d already become too much. They’d keep waiting for us to the extent that when we started to walk they’d walk, when we’d stop they’d stop, so… That was when we tried to give some direction.
So what about that infamous kitten scene? It’s the most shocking one in the film. Did you ever feel like cutting it out?
Peter: No. There was never any doubt about whether we would show it or not. That same night, we had a very good discussion with the team, and that event really shaped the way we thought of the dogs, and of the film itself. It was a turning point. For the first time since the shooting began we were able to take a step back to reflect on what exactly we were doing. We were angry at the dog killing the cat. We were really… it was almost weird to just look at his face! He’d still come up to us as though nothing had happened, with a face that said, OK guys, what’s wrong? But we could not behave toward him the same way.
Kremser: It was difficult to just touch him.
Peter: It was just too much, on so many levels. But as we all sat together, we began wondering, why is it that we feel this way toward him? The thing is, we’d spent the first two months putting all our efforts into making this film happen. We’d never really had a chance to reflect on the ethical dimensions of what we were doing. Not to that extent, at any rate. And we realized it didn’t feel right to judge this dog for what he did. That’s when we began to question what impact our presence had on them. What was it that we changed? Did we encourage the dogs to act in this or that way?
Stylistically, how did you guys go about picturing Space Dogs? How did the decision to keep the camera at dog’s level come into being, for instance?
Kremser: Well, the first image we had in mind––before we delved into Laika, and Moscow, and anything of that sort––was inspired by the preamble of Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux. You know, the baby walking around the dogs, and the cows, etc. So in terms of feelings we wanted the film to evoke, it had a lot to do with that, and also with my childhood, which I spent surrounded by dogs.
Peter: And not just one or two…
Kremser: Oh no, my parents had like ten. It was a proper pack. There were more dogs in my childhood than humans.
Sounds like the perfect way to grow up.
Kresmer: It was! And I was running around with them all the time. And this feeling of being observed by them, of being close to them, was something very different from the proximity people who own a dog normally have. Because you normally just look down at them. You go, [points a finger to the floor]: don’t do this, don’t do that! So this was really something we wanted from the start: dogs close to the camera, looking at you in the eye. How to make it possible, how to put together those long shots, and shoot at night, and make it work – this was a big technical issue. Together with our DOP we ran a few tests, in Berlin too, where he used to live. He’d go to this dog playground and film around. We really tried lots of different setups until we ended up with the system we wanted.
How much did you shoot?
Peter: A lot. One hundred hours.
And how long did the editing take you?
Peter: About a year.
I was doing some research before coming to see you and I bumped into a still of you guys shooting in Moscow. I was stunned by how just how close you guys got to the dogs. I think the camera may be as close as 25 centimeters. How did you guys manage to gain that trust, and that level of access to the animals?
Peter: I think it goes back to all the attention we gave them. If you think about the place we shot in, it’s a very open space, a space for workers. There are office buildings. It’s a place full of people passing by, always crowded. Which means the dogs are mostly just observing the area, without receiving much attention. Everything in their Moscow life is quite predictable. And here come these five people, happy to just follow them around wherever they go. And I think it was this level of attention that changed things. In some way, “Limpy” [the older mutt] and the younger dog enjoyed our presence. I really believe they appreciated us shooting them.
Kremser: It’s as if they liked it.
Peter: I see this in one specific scene. It’s the longest take we have, we follow the younger dog as he walks through a crowded street, in the middle of the day. He’s facing the camera. It’s the only shot we did that way. And anytime I see that scene I’m like, this guy definitely knows he’s being filmed. There’s no way. He’s never looking into the camera, but always sidewise, as if pretending not to notice.
I was also really fascinated by the archival footage you guys dug up. Some of those visuals were just extraordinary––I’m thinking of those shots inside the Soviet labs, where the camera goes inside the little capsules were the dogs are trained to withstand spins and rotations in space.
Peter: Oh, that research took plenty of time, too. About three years. We had two main resources, and both were the most interesting and valuable to us. One is the Russian state archive for scientific documentation. You can find everything in there. But it’s guarded by people who’ve been working there for a very long time. There’s no money that goes into it anymore, but they’re still very strict. There’s a long protocol to regulate how you should behave. What you can have access to. It’s all very 1990s. Still, there were two people we saw for a total of what, twenty times? And it was this thing of coming back, again and again, that must have persuaded them. See, it really means a lot to them. All the stuff they have stored, they believe in that, in its value. And they are the only ones left to defend it. They keep guarding a door not because they’re paid to do it, but because they really believe there is something unique behind it, that people should watch carefully.
Kremser: And when they met us it was very much an issue of trust. What do you guys want? Why are you here? Because at the beginning we told them the doc would only be about space dogs. But then we began asking for all sorts of material, and they got back to us saying “you’d only selected dog footage, why do you need stuff with turtles, or rockets?”. But of course, meeting them again and again made it easier to get the material we wanted. So the real challenge was to befriend them, basically.
Peter: And make turn them into participants of the films. Obviously, they are. We started to like them, and understand their perspective, and learned so much about West and East that way.
I remember a moment when the voiceover says, “We look at these dogs as relics from an ancient past,” and I remember thinking the same of those archival images and clips. It’s as if you two were also involved in some exhumation: you uncovered and dug up footage that would have probably never seen the light of day. It gives Space Dogs an endearing quality––as though you two were giving back as much as you’d been offered.
Peter: That’s right. It certainly felt that way for us, too.
Space Dogs is now playing as part of Alamo Drafthouse and Laemmle Theatres’ Virtual Cinemas and will expand wider this Friday, Sept 18.