Anatomie and The Cell

In the March issue of Discover magazine, readers will find an article by Alan Burdick called Gross Anatomy: Technology Makes Cadavers an Art Form and Dissection Uncomfortably Real. As you flip through the pages, you see color photo after photo of “plasticized exhibits, made from human remains;” bodies opened so that viewers could see the inside of a cranium, musculature, bones, and nerves.

The article is based on the Stuttgart exhibition called Body Worlds, which features the “work” of German anatomist Gunther von Hagens. According to the piece, von Hagens has “invented a chemical process that effectively transforms the tissues and organs of cadavers into a lifelike, pliable plastic, which he then painstakingly dissects and places on display.” Now why, you might ask, is Performance Omaha even writing about this subject? Several months ago, I stumbled across a German horror film called Anatomie (2000). It wasn’t the image of the hand, dripping with what looks like blood as it touches a glass window, that beckoned me to rent it. (Although, during my many visits to Hollywood Video, I often passed by the DVD and thought, “should I, shouldn’t I.”) It was the cast that convinced me to get it from Netflix. Franka Potente has been a favorite since I saw her in Tom Twyker’s fast-paced Lola Rennt (translated to Run, Lola, Run), and the film also had Benno Furmann, who was the only redeeming aspect of The Order. Since you pay a flat monthly fee to Netflix, you’re more apt to give things a try. You aren’t actually wasting any money, you tell yourself. So, I added it to my queue.

Anatomie focuses on Paula Henning (Potenta), whose brother has a degenerative disorder that is crippling and killing him. Inspired to find a cure for her brother and following in her grandfather’s footsteps, she applies to and wins a place at an exclusive Heidelberg medical school. While riding on the train to Heidelberg, she chats with the intelligent and man-eating Gretchen (Anna Loos), who can’t wait to start working through all of the handsome, future doctors. They also meet a young man on the train, who shockingly ends up on Paula’s dissection table. Curious to find out what happened, Paula begins an investigation, only to uncover a gruesome conspiracy within the school’s corridors. It seems an ancient Anti-Hippocratic Society is using whatever means it wants to advance medicine. (According to IMDB, “the door that leads to the stainless steel morgue room in the movie really leads to the cafeteria of Technische Universität München. The movie was screened in the big wooden lecture auditorium seen in the movie, leading to a picture-in-picture effect for the audience.”)

In Anatomie, there is an area in the university in which the students see human beings who have been sliced open to reveal their inner workings, just as they are in the Discover magazine article. When von Hagens began doing what he was, he had to fend off any number of people who accused him of grave robbing. One headline in the U.K., where the anatomist’s Body Worlds was on display from 2002-03, read “Dr. Death and His Traveling Freak Show.” Anatomie takes this premise and proposes the most frightening explanation for why these plasticized sculptures appear so life-like. Anatomie is borderline gruesome, but what medical-horror film isn’t?

It’s well done, though, and if you watch it at night, in the dark, it’s truly scary. One of the “revenge” segments will stay in my mind for a long, long time. It’s pretty horrific, not necessarily in execution but when you think about it. Furmann gives a borderline over-the-top performance, but he’s nice to watch. Loos is an actress-singer in Germany, so if you trawl through the extras, you can watch her strange music video. Potenta does her best impression of a sleuth in the path of danger. Elevating this script above schlocky, gross out horror is the film’s ethical premise. What should/would we do in the name of science? Paula’s brother is doomed with his disease; he is going to die. So Paula is conflicted with what the Anti-Hippocratic Society could offer her, which is possibly a speedier result and survival for her brother. (For another good medical thriller that questions how far we should go in the name of science is Extreme Measures, starring Gene Hackman and Hugh Grant.)

Anatomie proved so popular in Germany that writer-director, Stefan Ruzowitzky, made a sequel that also starred Potente. In this film, the German actress has only a bit part. Having watched her classmates die, she now works as a full-time investigator who is hot on the trail of the Anti-Hippocratic Society. The film begins in Munich, I think, at a swank gathering of physicians. Prof. Muller-LaRousse (Herbert Knaupp) is being honored for his contributions to science, when a man interrupts the proceedings by slashing his chest with a scalpel and then stabbing himself in the chest. (It’s gruesome, I warned you.) What seems like a random act of insanity becomes clearer as you watch the film. A group of Muller-LaRousse’s student-disciples have been drafted to participate in bionics research The catch is, to belong to the group, you have to offer yourself up as a guinea pig. Things go wrong, people get murdered and soon Paula’s on the case, nosing around.

The first film was infinitely better but I also enjoyed Anatomie 2. Again we have a sex-crazed blonde, who this time comes in the form of Viktoria (Heike Makatsch). This Seven of Nine lookalike is the one who injects everyone so they can withstand the pain. Some people have written the Anatomie films off as yet another bunch of “teen slasher flicks.” I don’t agree. They are additionally interesting because they are highly probable. Who knows what takes place in research facilities? And there’s the added creep factor that these are set in Germany. Remember the Nazis? The state sanctioned all kinds of experiments on humans; the segments of society deemed to be inferior. And, undeniably, many of our advances could be traced back to those.

This Discover article reminds me of another controversial and eccentric artist, Damien Hirst, who also received a lot of backlash when he exhibited his animals floating in a glass tank of formaldehyde. Just as in the case of Anatomie, which I’m sure was inspired by von Hagens, one very strange scene in The Cell (2000) seems inspired by Hirst’s work. (The scene involves a horse that is slivered by blades that fall from the ceiling and then the horse is pulled apart to reveal the insides.) Directed by Tarsem Singh, who made the leap from music videos – his best known is R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion – The Cell takes the audience into the mind of a serial killer. Jennifer Lopez plays the psychologist, Catherine Deane, who must navigate Stargher’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) synapses so she can find out where he’s hidden his latest victim. (The victim is in a tank that’s slowly filling with water.) The images found in this sci-fi-horror film are beautiful but often repellant.

The first time I saw the film, I loved it and immediately went back the next day for another viewing. The people I dragged along didn’t concur with my fascination, telling me it was sick. Like Se7en, the Cell is a marvel to watch, although the subject matter is highly distasteful to some people. What appealed to me was how The Cell was unlike any other film. It amazingly captures the dreamlike perceptions and images that the mind contains, but almost goes beyond description. You can’t read about it, you have to watch it.

It’s certainly not a film for the weak of stomach. If the idea of a man who has put rings into his back so he can hang from the ceiling turns you off, then avoid this film. That’s only a small part of it, but it gets worse from there. D’Onofrio is masterful as the seriously disturbed killer who turns his victims into life-size dolls, and Vince Vaughn, unintentionally adds comic value, as the FBI agent. Trippy and surreal, The Cell is another one of those films I had to buy when it came out on DVD.

So, there you have it. Read the Discover article and then watch some very bizarre, twisted films what could be a better way to spend a spring afternoon?

Author: Julien R. Fielding

Julien R. Fielding has been reviewing films, and covering the entertainment industry, for more than a decade. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, horror, action, and anime. She authored the book, Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second.

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