by Andrew Wyatt on Sep 17, 2020

It seems obvious what directors Elsa Remser and Levin Peter intended with their slippery, contemplative, and occasionally upsetting new documentary feature, Space Dogs. Ostensibly inspired by the story of Laika – a stray mongrel from the Moscow streets that became the first animal to orbit the Earth – the film presents a ruminative portrait of both the historical Soviet “space dogs” and the stray canines that wander the present-day Russian capital. Space Dogs aspires to serve as a pensive tribute to Laika in its slantwise way, an attempt to see the human world from the perspective of a dog, whether a scavenging, flea-bitten stray or a befuddled test animal locked in a space-bound capsule.

Kremser and Peter (”Sonor,” A Promise) are Austrian and German, respectively, and their latest collaboration is plainly influenced by the documentaries of fellow German-speakers Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Space Dogs presents prolonged, mostly wordless footage of Moscow’s street-dwelling mutts going about their hardscrabble lives, and then intersperses this nature-doc material with vintage research footage from the Soviet Union’s canine-cosmonaut program. The filmmakers attempt to draw a thematic connection between these two sections – the urban wildlife film and the historical clip reel – by sprinkling their feature with elegiac, Russian-language musings on, for example, the fate of Laika’s cosmos-wandering soul. However, despite its admirable resolve to present a truly canine-centric viewpoint, Space Dogs never coalesces into a clear picture of anything save nature’s cruelty and humanity’s talent for escalating that cruelty to absurd new heights.

In terms of sheer running time, most of Space Dogs consists of coolly observational footage of Muscovite street dogs doing what stray animals do. They trot around the city, noses alert for food, rivals, and danger. They sit placidly and watch the world go by, taking everything in but also lost in their own canine daydreams. They sleep in culverts, doorways, or abandoned cars – or just sprawled inelegantly on the blacktop, all skewed limbs and ragged ears. The camera remains close to the ground throughout, mimicking a literal dog’s-eye view of humanity’s garish, perplexing world. Moscow citizens exhibit sporadic gestures of kindness or hostility toward the city’s strays, but the attitude of the humans is mostly one of indifference.

Kremser and Peter zero in on a handful of specific animals, following them through the meandering rhythms of street life. The result is not a story in any meaningful sense. It’s more of a collection of incidents and interludes, unfettered to chronology or any sense of urgency. (A fitting choice, perhaps, for a species that lives day-by-day and has no sense of its own mortality.) Most of this footage is almost studiously banal, but there are moments of humor, tension, and – occasionally – shocking violence. In a ghoulishly protracted scene that incited controversy during the feature’s 2019 premiere at the Locarno Film Festival, one of the dogs corners and kills a cat, which slowly and agonizingly expires in the larger predator’s crushing jaws. In principle, this sequence is comparable to the grisly lion-vs.-gazelle dramas that play out in countless wildlife documentaries, but there’s something unsettling about such an unblinking portrayal of violence when the creatures in question are both domesticated companion animals. (The directors can hardly be faulted for capturing the incident as it occurred, but the footage included in the final film feels excessive and exploitative.)

The presence of that unfortunate feline recalls Ceyda Torun’s enthralling 2016 documentary Kedi, which explored the lives of Istanbul’s street cats and their curious relationship to the city’s human populace. In some ways, Space Dogs is the dark reflection of that feature: brooding and mysterious where Kedi is playful and warm-hearted. (Ironic qualities, given that the broad stereotypes about dogs and cats are generally the opposite.) Kremser and Peter’s film depicts dogs as enigmatic creatures, allegedly simple-minded but keepers of their own primeval canine secrets. Although Space Dogs purports to honor the lives of the Soviet Union’s spacefaring pooches – and the modern-day strays that inherited the alleyways and vacant lots where Laika and her ilk once roamed – the documentary is so weighed down by directionless non-action and poetic abstraction that it fails to feel like much of a tribute.

Laika did not survive her 1957 space mission aboard Sputnik 2, nor was she expected to, but the mission was nonetheless deemed a success. Thereafter, Moscow strays were the only acceptable recruits for the USSR’s dog-based suborbital and orbital experiments. Kremser and Peter lightly dilute their present-day Moscow scenes with scratchy vintage footage of the Soviet space program’s test dogs: smallish, doe-eyed mutts who seem confused yet astonishingly calm about the strange torments inflicted on them in the name of the USSR’s geopolitical dominance. Although these archival clips are often distressing – and, in the case of the surgical modifications made to the animals, quite grotesque – they still possess an undeniable historical value. The footage reveals not only what Soviet scientists regarded as salient to their research, but also what the state deemed valuable as propaganda. When two retired space dogs eventually produced a litter of puppies together, it was a huge media event in the USSR, an adorable, ready-made demonstration that space travel had no long-term deleterious effects on living creatures.

Undeniably, the juxtaposition of these two flavors of footage – vibrant color images of animals roaming freely in their “natural” habitat vs. degraded black-and-white images of animals subjected to bizarre experiments – creates a striking contrast, but what exactly that contrast is intended to illuminate remains frustratingly unclear. Narrator Aleksey Serebryakov provides poetic reflections on the Soviet space dogs throughout the film, musing on what might have been going through the minds of the canine cosmonauts as they were rocketing through the upper atmosphere – or slowly dying in their tiny capsules. While the aim of this voiceover is clearly to reinforce the feature’s tone of gloomy Herzogian awe, it doesn’t add much in practice, and at times even feels like unintentional parody. (Quite a feat, given that Herzog himself has dabbled in self-parody regarding his inimitable narration style.) The dreamy, haunting score by John Gürtler and Jan Miserre is much more successful on this count, bestowing Space Dogs with an otherworldly shimmer that suggests the vast unknowns of the animal mind.

Space Dogs can be aimless and even sluggish, but languidness isn’t necessarily a crime in documentary cinema, especially when a film is less interested in transmitting facts than in conveying the sensations of a world far removed from the viewer’s everyday experience. Insofar as it provides an unconventional perspective on a seemingly familiar setting – the bustling urban landscape – Kremser and Peter’s feature succeeds. However, the film never convincingly establishes a significant connection between past and present beyond crude, surface-level parallels. Space Dogs doesn’t work that well as a wildlife film about Moscow strays, nor does it provide much in the way of crunchy history about the Soviet space dogs. It’s a half-baked work with an (admittedly convincing) illusion of lyrical profundity. Despite the hushed respect that Kremser and Peter evince for their animal subjects, Laika and her fellow cosmic travelers ultimately deserve a tribute that is less hazy and inaccessible.

Rating: C

Content Warning: Space Dogs includes graphic archival footage of animal experimentation from the Soviet space program and an extended, graphic sequence in which a cat is attacked and killed by dogs.

Space Dogs will be available to rent from Vimeo on Sept. 18, 2020.