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A Conversation With Elsa Kremser & Levin Peter (SPACE DOGS)

This past fall, I spoke remotely with Austrian/German directors Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter about their work on the beautifully elliptical documentary Space Dogs (which I also reviewed). The movie tells two stories in parallel, that of the Soviet space program in its early days and of the life of street dogs in Moscow today. The narratives are connected via Laika, the first mammal to travel into near-Earth orbit, who herself, as a stray, came from the USSR’s capital. And so we toggle between an historical overview of human technological achievement, cruelty/kindness towards animals, and the unfathomable nature of these only partly domesticated creatures who so often take up the frame, the whole unified by Russian actor Aleksey Serebryakov’s poetic voiceover. Joining me in the conversation was my Fog of Truth podcast colleague Bart Weiss (of Dallas VideoFest). Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. At times, I have adjusted Kremser and Peter’s otherwise fine English to make it fit American idioms.

Hammer to Nail: What motivated this choice to marry the story of Laika and other space-traveling animals to a story of street dogs in modern-day Moscow? What came first, Laika or the street dogs?

Elsa Kremser: Actually we really started with the idea to make a film about a pack of stray dogs. This was the initial moment when we saw stray dogs in our travels, especially in South America. They followed us. For several days they followed our path, and this was so intense and interesting to observe them that we thought, “We don’t know any example in cinema history which is really dedicated to filming dogs and which is going down to their eye level, taking animals seriously as living beings, and not just as side figures or as a basis for human projections.

This was the start, and from there we quite soon thereafter came across Laika, of course, as maybe the most famous animal in history, in a way. When we heard that she was actually caught from the streets and that she had a life on the streets of Moscow for two years before she was caught and brought to the facilities where they trained her for the space flight, this was something which interested us a lot. She was from down there flying up to space and now her ghost would return to Earth. There, we had our story.

HtN: Well, there must be something in the air because there was a film that I saw in 2019, from Chile, called Los Reyes, by the husband-and-wife team of Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut, that is about two stray dogs in a park in the capital, Santiago. I recommend it, if you haven’t seen it.

Levin Peter: Yeah, we did not see it. I mean, it crossed our path, of course. We heard about the film right after it came out and maybe it felt too close, and so far, we have not seen it.

Bart Weiss: And then there’s Kedi, a film about cats that uses the same sort of visual style and method of following them around. So, I’m always interested in archival footage. As a filmmaker and editor I use them a lot. I know that in the United States, getting footage from NASA is a relatively known quantity, but how did you go about finding all the archival Russian footage, which is so thematically important to the film?

LP: In a word, it was very, very tough on so many different levels. It was also emotionally, for us, nerve-wracking, too. We found ourselves in situations where we nearly gave up, of course, where we were fighting for weeks and then the door was closed again. You can actually imagine it like this: the two of us with a very good Russian assistant trying to knock on every door in Moscow and trying to make our way through this very complicated structure of documenting things. So I mean, 80% of the footage in the film has never been shown before, and it’s, for us, also the most interesting images. It’s for a good reason that they’ve been hidden for 50, 60 years, even. Because they’re very intense. They show the pure truth there. These images hide nothing.

You see the dogs in the institute. Scientists train them and even operate on them, actually. The footage comes out of an Institute with the interesting name of “Institute of Biomedical Problems.” They started with the dogs in the ’50s and ’60s and they still work with cosmonauts. It really came with a legend of nine forgotten reels of 35mm down in their basement. We learned about it pretty early and then it took three years to actually get it. It was complicated because we had already started to edit. Even in editing, we had to go back to Moscow several times to be there and talk with the people again, to try to explain to them, over and over again, why we need this material and what the film is about. Actually, when the editing had already progressed quite a bit, we actually got this final material and it turned the film upside down again, because it was just much more than we expected.

A still from SPACE DOGS

HtN: Speaking of challenges, what difficulties did you encounter in filming the lives of these dogs and how did you address those challenges? I mean, you follow them closely. It can’t have been easy.

EK: First of all, the most complicated thing was to get so close to them and also to be technically able to film at their height and still be very spontaneous, because dogs sleep for hours and hours and then, all at once, they just jump up and run across the street. We were a team of five people with good and high-quality, not-too-lightweight cameras. So to build the system up and also to understand their movements was the main challenge in the beginning. Somehow, the pack of dogs accepted the whole team as kind of companions.

In the beginning, of course, they were wild and quite irritated by the five people watching them, because they were not used to that. But they do regularly get fed by people, or some people yell at them, but they’re not used to people that watch them for a very long time. But also I think this irritation, I think, was also a very good thing because they got curious and they stayed, and accepted us, somehow. We had a very long shooting period. This took, I would say, eight weeks of constant shooting with them until we finally used the material. It was, all-in-all, 13 weeks, and in our movie you only see the very last weeks of the shoot. The start was still finding out how all of this works, cinematically, and forming a relationship with the dogs.

BW: When I talk to my documentary students, I talk to them about how one should cast people in your film and think about them. So, how did you go about the process of casting your dogs and finding these incredible characters that are so important to the success of this film?

LP: We had to search all over Moscow because there were two things that were very important. We knew from the beginning that we would shoot a lot at nighttime and then in the early morning. We also knew we needed an area to shoot in that would have many different locations, different colors, different light situations. We never wanted it to be all flat, all the same, with the same lighting. This was very important to us. And then of course, the dogs. So sometimes we even found dogs that were super interesting; they were living in a very special relation to each other, they were united as a pack, but it was just an industrial-like empty field, now almost rotten.

But we never saw the film this way. We wanted the dogs to be close to humans. So this was a challenge to find both, to find the right balance. We had so many tryouts. We worked with different people, like animal activists or just dog lovers or dog helpers, and they all gave us their best advice. We tried to structure this search, which was also a lot of fun. We went out of the car with our Russian assistant. Then we came to a new place, walked around, tried to find the dogs. Elsa and I discussed, like, “Ah, yeah, they look interesting. But do you really believe in them for a 90-minute film?” This was really like casting.

And then, one night, there was a dog who crossed the path of our car. The dog was completely white and looked interesting, and we jumped out of the car and this dog brought us to this bar that you see in the film where there is always this loud music and these colors, and there were other dogs. And for the first time we felt like, “Wow, this is it.” We spent several days there, and then we realized that this is the place where we want to do the film with these dogs, especially with this young dog. Elsa grew up with dogs, and it was always her intention that we should choose a young dog because he might feel closer to us and would be curious all the time, wanting to know things. So this was, in terms of casting, the most important point, that we choose a very young dog.

HtN: I agree with Bart that your dogs are really quite remarkable, but I want to now turn to something that’s a little disturbing. In all documentaries, including nature films like the ones the BBC puts out, there’s a sort of prime directive, to quote Star Trek, to not interfere in the lives of your subjects. But you do have one very disturbing scene where one of the dogs kills a domestic cat and then plays with its body for a while. That’s your main young dog that you were just talking about. Were you tempted to step in? And then, a second question: why do you hold for so long on that footage, which is sure to disturb, and maybe even repel, certain viewers?

EK: To the first question, I would say that we did not at all see the chance to interfere, because these dogs are, as you see in the film, also quite wild. We could touch them and get very close to them, but when they started to be aggressive, like in a hunting mood, as a human there is a point where you cannot interfere anymore. So there was never even a moment of reflection when this happened. It was a thing in a glimpse of a second, so this just happened and it shocked us deeply during the shoot and also afterwards. We started to, in a way, hate the dog, the main dog we spent so many weeks with. We just thought, “Okay, what did you just do? It’s horrible and you’re a bad, bad dog.” This thinking ended up irritating us so much because we really wanted to dedicate this film to these animals.

A still from SPACE DOGS

So this brought a big discussion about morals in correlation to animals, in general, how we project our human moral issues. Because you’ve mentioned BBC or nature documentaries, where we always see a wild lion killing a gazelle, and it’s the most natural thing and children can watch it and then the writer is explaining to us that this lion needs to hunt to survive. Obviously this dog doesn’t need to hunt to survive and he doesn’t even eat the cat, because he’s not starving. He has plenty of trash around and food and people even give him food. So it’s this state of being somehow in between, in between humans and somehow wildness or his wild character, which is a complicated state of being and that is what we wanted to show.

It’s also one reason why we hold the scene for so long in the movie. First of all, it’s also a time for reflection. When you put a scene like that, very short, it’s a shocking thing, but then it’s over, and then you can continue with other topics and other themes and what the dogs are doing. But if you hold on it, it’s of course shocking to humans, but reflection also comes with that. In this moment, people have to time to think about why they, as a human, do not want to see that, and why they, as a human, maybe think this dog is bad and someone should have avoided that. But then it comes to this point, what I explained before, that these are also wild animals.

LP: One reason why this scene is so long is also because we wanted to show it in its full tragedy. Because, as Elsa said, we tried this over and over, to show it and to minimize it. But for me, as I remember in the editing room and reflecting on this, I always felt like the longer I watch him to a certain point, I really feel that there is something very unnatural in his behavior. I mean, on the one hand you can say, “He’s following his instinct. It’s maybe the first time in his life, because he was so young, realizing that he’s able to do this, to kill, and he’s trying it and he’s doing it.” But then he’s not eating it. And this is the tragedy that we see in this, because this is the main metaphor for us that describes that these dogs are in this miserable position for their whole existence, since humans created them, between their wild nature and their domestication. This is the importance to us of the whole scene.

Also, because you mentioned BBC docs, the reason why we made Space Dogs is also to try to turn this upside down. For me, these environmental documentaries, they never really work because, for me, they’re completely fake. They show me something that is not there. They somehow give me the illusion that I do not share the planet with these animals that are somewhere far away, and I actually have nothing to do with them … but I have a lot to do with them. And then we said, “Okay, if we want to do it differently, we have to go close. We have to be in the middle of them in terms of not changing the life of the protagonists or not intervening.” I mean, we changed their life completely, the life of these dogs. We gave them full attention every day. We accompanied every one of their steps and we may have even encouraged them to do things they would not have done without us. We don’t know this, but we are very sure that we changed a lot there and I hope this is obvious and clear in the film.

BW: Did you ever fear that the dogs might turn on you at some point?

EK: Yeah, there were situations, especially in the research, when we encountered new dogs we did not know. This is always a tough situation because there are quite aggressive pack of dogs out there in Moscow. This was tough, but they have a very clear language if you can read it and understand, in a way. Then you just have to draw back, yourself, and go and leave the place, and not run. But also with the dogs we filmed during shooting, it’s not that they would ever really attack us. This was not a fear, but in terms of, if they have a fight amongst each other or with each other, that even accidentally, they might bite us because we were so close all the time. This was obviously a challenge.

HtN: Voiceover is a big part of your film. How did you land on using voiceover and how did you cast Russian actor Aleksey Serebryakov to narrate the film? Incidentally, do either of you speak Russian?

LP: We learned it in the moment. I mean, we tried to get better and better. We learned a lot on the street in our research, and we had a teacher once a week. So, we tried. Way before the shooting and in the research, we decided that this film should have voiceover. We always knew that this would be a question of balance because we never wanted a human voice to take the audience by the hand and explain everything that is uncertain. We wanted the dogs to irritate us. We wanted the audience to be confronted mainly with the dogs. This voice was just there because we found it very important to have a certain guideline that you can lose yourself in within the film and lose yourself to the dogs.

I think this works pretty well, in the end. Actually, this actor is also a reason why it’s in Russian, because we simply found his voice astonishing and very rich in terms of character. I think if you just listen to his voice, it’s really this mood of maybe a forgotten Soviet scientist who is reading for the first time out of his diaries. We were extremely lucky, as we were able to work with him and also to find a tone for the voiceover. We found inspiration in sci-fi literature and also in diaries of the scientists that we were able to read. This all was the same tone.

BW: For both of you, why are dogs so special in your life? Clearly you have this fondness for dogs. I mean, both Chris and I have dogs and I also have four cats, but clearly you connect with these dogs on a very deep level and there is clearly a strong sense of love for the animal. Where does that come from?

EK: First of all, our interest in dogs, especially in a cinematic way, comes because the species is connected to humans like maybe no other species. We own a cat, privately, not a dog, but I grew up with dogs. But yeah, this “man’s best friend thing” is also, for us, a signal of human control. We always try as humans to control things. We try to control space and fly out and find out everything and get it into our mind somehow, even if that is basically impossible. At the same time, somehow the dog is for us a symbol of our taming of nature, because we want to have the wilderness in our houses and on our couch and touch it and pet it. The stray dogs are such a special species in this sense because they are both: they are a symbol of the taming of wildness and also living wild.

HtN: Well, thank you both for taking the time to chat with us and giving such thoughtful, thorough answers to our questions. I find Space Dogs a really fascinating, unique kind of movie, and I want to thank you for making it.

EK: Thanks so much for the nice talk.

LP: Thank you.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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