Errors of the Human Body

2014_errors posterUnlike the wellspring from which it has drawn upon for decades, the literature of ideas, too often science fiction cinema has come to be defined by explosions. This is not to say that science fiction and spectacle are incompatible, nor that explosions and helicopters cannot belong in our favourite genre, only that they must be there for a reason which serves the story beyond looking good in a trailer. We cannot be given the stars unless first we think about how we will reach them, and also consider why we wish to.

Unswervingly low key and unapologetically intellectual, Errors of the Human Body is the feature directorial debut of Eron Sheean, inspired by his six years as artist in residence at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden, and it is in this city the film is set, though the facility where geneticist Geoffrey Burton (Michael Eklund) has taken up his new post is never referred to other than as the Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics.

2014_errors 1Spurred by the loss of his infant son who died from a condition which was named after him – Burton’s disease, characterised by rapid progression of tumours on and throughout the body, which are unresponsive to treatment – Geoff’s work on early detection of embryonic abnormalities was going nowhere, leading to his invitation to “a less politicised environment.”

The opening scenes see Geoff shaving, changing his appearance prior to travelling cross country by train, fractured scenes from a fractured life, living in a regret that is only sharpened by his keen awareness that he is drowning in failure.

2014_errors 3At the Institute he finds that he has all the lab equipment he needs but his apartment lacks even a tin opener, and while director Samuel (a surprisingly restrained Rik Mayall) is welcoming his other colleagues are aloof, as cool as the German winter.

Filleting his fish and displaying the bones, Chiba compares their work to the act of killing an animal for food: “People want the cure, but not the research. It makes them uncomfortable, knowing how you got there, what you had to do.” Intense and direct, Jarek (the near skeletal Tómas Lemarquis) wishes to develop insect vectors to spread antivirals, comparing his strategy of inoculation with the ideologies of Mao and Stalin: “Indoctrinate one generation, let them program the next.”

2014_errors 5Resisting Jarek‘s request for collaboration, Geoff‘s viewpoint is different. “This is not eugenics,” he assures during his lecture. “I’m not trying to develop new techniques to pre-screen people with brown eyes or dark skin or freckles. Diversity… the things which define us as a species [are] to be celebrated. Mutations which endanger human life are not.”

The only warmth he finds is with his former intern and former lover Rebekka (Karoline Herfurth), an artist as well as a scientist, working on cell regeneration but aware that even if she makes a discovery that in itself is not a cure. When Geoff suspects that Jarek and his assistant Waldemar (Ulrich Meinecke) are illicitly taking samples from Rebekka’s lab and using them in their own animal research in the “maus haus,” he finds his professional indignation in conflict with Rebekka’s plea for him not to take any action but to leave it to her.

2014_errors 7The pacing is elegiac, the setting frosty; Geoff’s trailing of Waldemar through the labyrinth of the laboratory complex is the closest to a car chase the film offers. While some may admire that the film refuses to pander, expecting the audience to be scientifically literate and to pay attention, other may find the cold intellectualism of the characters makes them difficult to warm to, yet there are moments when the characters let their hair down, such as when Rebekka dresses as one of her experimental axolotls and insists Geoff accompany her to a costume party, which regrettably culminates in a dream sequence which is graphic and vividly disturbing.

With an awareness of the contentious issues of stem cell research, as hinted at by Samuel’s comment to Geoff, the ethics of animal testing and professional conduct, Errors of the Human Body straddles the cusp of superior Eurothriller and science fiction and reminds of Doomwatch in that the most disturbing aspect Shane Danielsen and Eron Sheean’s script is how small the steps are between current research and what is depicted here.

Errors of the Human Body has been screened at festivals and is available on itunes

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