Ethical torture porn in genetics research

Errors of the Human Body (M). Director: Eron Sheean. Starring: Michael Eklund, Karoline Herfurth, Tómas Lemarquis. 102 minutes

During the opening scene of this unnervingly convincing science-fiction film, a man systematically removes a beard that appears to have been worn more through slackness than style. This is the image of a man literally restoring a face of civility, after an unknown period in the wilderness.

Even when he arrives fresh-faced and neatly dressed in the East German city of Dresden, his world-weariness is palpable beneath his determinedly cool facade. Eklund's carefully studied portrayal of molecular biologist Geoff Burton leaves no doubt that this is a character with a deeply troubled recent past.

It is not long before we receive a hint of the nature of the hurt he is harbouring. Burton arrives at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden (eerily, this is a real location). It seems he is a scientist of some repute, though lately fallen from grace, now being offered a second chance.

In his opening lecture, he speaks of a mysterious and agonising genetic disorder that claimed the life of his infant son. It is his subsequent groundbreaking research into the ethically fraught world of prenatal diagnosis and treatment that has prompted the Institute to invite him to join them. He insists that his research is not related to eugenics, but merely naming this potentially slippery slope doesn't negate it.

Errors of the Human Body poses this and other ethical concerns and gradually answers them with the physical, emotional, psychological and moral corruption of its characters. As answers, these are far from black and white; the film is not a straightforward morality tale but something akin to a kind of stylish ethical torture porn.

Writer-director Sheean spent more than two years at the Institute as an artist in residence were he was able 'to observe and participate in many amazing and strange experiments' in 'a world where the outcomes of birth, disease and death in lower organisms such as flies and worms are being shaped by our own genetic intervention'.

'In this arena, science-fiction is a redundant term,' he suggests. The evidence of Errors of the Human Body is that he considers both the practical realities of this research and the various, perhaps insoluble ethical conundrums that stem from it as innately disturbing and horrific. His film reflects this experience to its audience. Its achievements are largely visceral, rather than intellectual. It preys on the subconscious and on base gut reactions.

It is illuminating to consider one casting choice in particular. Rik Mayall plays the institute's senior stuffed-shirt, Samuel Mead. Mayall is not known as a straight man. He is famed for a string of seminal, manic characters in comedic films and series dating back to the early 1980s, from The Young Ones to Bottom to Drop Dead Fred.

These trademark outlandish performances will be burned into the emotional muscle-memory of many viewers' responses to this far more conservative character. It lends a surreal and sinister edge to a character who may or may not know about the possibly nefarious activities that are taking place on his watch.

Something similar can be said of the film itself. Its ultra cool and evenhanded exterior is a facade for a sort of repressed mania, consisting in part of the fraught ethical questions that buzz about barely beneath the surface, alongside its characters' secrets and insecurities. Stylistically the mania becomes more prominent, as the psychological and physical repercussions of characters' actions begin to manifest in visceral fashion.

The fundamental secret that pings among the fissures of Burton's own distressed psyche is the film's greatest ethical and existential horror, partly because compared to the film's more extreme conceits it is brutally mundane.


 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Errors of the Human Body, Michael Eklund, Rik Mayall

 

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