Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 1 
3 Sept
2001

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Stefan Ruzowitzky's Anatomie (Anatomy, 2000)HORROR
Germany's
secret history

Stefan Ruzowitzky's
Anatomie (Anatomy, 2000)

Ruzowitzky successfully fuses elements of American genre film and modern European history in Anatomie, making a Gothic horror that draws on Germany's failure to come to terms with its Nazi past, argues Steffen Hantke.


A Gothic past

Gothic horror has always dealt with the return of the repressed, a theme that lends itself particularly well to the exploration of historical experience, particularly when it remains unacknowledged or disavowed. In the case of German history, the burdensome past for the 20th century is primarily that of the Third Reich, a legacy that has remained prominent in public discourse on German national identity, even through the geopolitical changes brought on by the demise of the Eastern Bloc and the so-called reunification of West and East Germany. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the recent German horror film Anatomie (Anatomy, 2000) by Austrian-born director Stefan Ruzowitzky reaches back to the Third Reich in its critique of contemporary Germany.

Stefan Ruzowitzky's Anatomie (Anatomy, 2000)
The dark side of medical research
The protagonist of Anatomie, Paula Henning (Franka Potente), is a medical student who receives an invitation to an exclusive surgical program at the university in Heidelberg. During the summer months she spends in the elite company of eccentric and brilliant professors and students, a series of murders and disappearences leads her to discover that the program serves as a front for recruiting and training new members of a secret society calling itself the Anti-Hyppocrates. Part student fraternity, part freemasonry chapter, the group represents a secret history of medicine, a dark double of the Enlightenment, in which research and its imperatives override the ethical priority of easing human suffering.

Paula's grim discoveries—a young man she meets on the train to Heidelberg turns up as a lab specimen a few days later—appear to be the work of the secret society. Her attempts to uncover the conspiracy meet with incredulity and ridicule from her peers. But later she finds out that one of the group's recent initiates, a student named Hein (Benno Fürmann), has embarked on a mad killing spree, very much to the disapproval of the Anti-Hyppocrates,
Stefan Ruzowitzky's Anatomie (Anatomy, 2000)
Paula: At the wrong end of the scalpel
who are uncomfortable with seeing themselves exposed to public scrutiny, but are also genuinely appalled by the young man's murders. The film ends with Paula being pursued by Hein through the dark caverns of the pathology building, a chase that ends with Paula killing Hein in self-defense and the disbanding of the Heidelberg chapter of the Anti-Hyppocrates.

A family romance

Though the Anti-Hyppocrates look back to a long and distinguished history, it is during the Nazi era that the group defines itself for the 20th century. Proto-fascist ideology survives in the structure of the program itself, which is based on strict Darwinian selection "to guarantee high standards," as one professor puts it. Paula's own grandfather, an ailing though strong-willed old man confined to a bed in the same hospital where he used to practice and teach, turns out to have been a member. A role model for Paula, he dies before she has an opportunity to confront him. His death also leaves her with the problem of renegotiating her relationship with her father, from whom she has been alienated because of his rejection of pure scientific research.

Stefan Ruzowitzky's Anatomie (Anatomy, 2000)
A traveling companion on the slab
Using a career choice as a form of silent protest, Paula's father opts for the trivial, quotidian routine of caring for screaming children and inconsiderate patients in reaction to his own father's involvement in the inhuman extremes of pure science. The film indicts this silent gesture of protest, however, because it makes Paula fall back upon her grandfather in her search for a role model. Without explicit elaboration, her father's symbolic act fails to register as such. Instead, it comes across as a lack of nerve, a personal failure, to a generation encouraged to pursue its ambitions without the burden of history holding it back.

At first glance, the film seems to suggest that the grandchildren's generation is susceptible to the proto-fascist (or crypto-fascist) stance of the Anti-Hyppocrates because the previous generation has failed to take a clear stand. Paula was never informed that her grandfather is a member of the Anti-Hyppocrates, nor does her father explain why he chose the more modest humanitarian goal of helping to ease human suffering instead of pursuing pure research. Through her detective work, Paula writes the history of Germany from the perspective of a generation fifty-five years removed from the Third Reich. Those who know nothing about history, the film seems to suggest, are doomed to repeat it. But things are not that simple.

Generations at odds

Stefan Ruzowitzky's Anatomie (Anatomy, 2000)
A feeling of fascism still in the air
Post-war German culture appears much more willing to confront, or at least to publicly articulate, its fascist past than Anatomie is willing to concede. In fact, voices critical of Germany's Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Germany's coming to terms with its fascist past) may focus on precisely this ambivalence—that constantly talking about the past may not be the same thing as actually coming to terms with it. Anatomie avoids this complexity by opting for the relative simplicity of the conspiracy plot.

Still, the film succeeds in pulling itself out from under this compromise. Its portrait of generational change in post-Nazi Germany reflects a sense of how Germany—West Germany, and subsequently the newly "reunited" Germany—came to be the industrial juggernaut, member of the G8, it is today. The film associates Paula's father with the student protest in the 1960's, the so-called "68ger." Having reached middle age, this generation prides itself on having begun the process of critically interrogating (about its Nazi past) a Germany that started congratulating itself for the reconstructive "economic miracle" fueled by the Marshall Plan during the 1950s and '60s.

Stefan Ruzowitzky's Anatomie (Anatomy, 2000)
Reading matter that's a little too incisive
If fascist ideology has survived into the present, Ruzowitzky's film suggests, it did so because of the failure of the 68ger. One generation's self-congratulatory complacency for having rebuilt postwar Germany into a global contender has been replaced by the subsequent generation's self-congratulatory complacency for having exposed the moral compromises that were made in exchange for the economic recovery. In the figure of Paula, the subsequent generation steps in and continues this process of interrogation. Withdrawing into private gestures of protest, as Paula's father has done, is useless, because it will interrupt the transmission of historical awareness.

The price of economic miracles

But this does not mean that Anatomie allows the present generation to feel entitled to the same self-congratulatory complacency for which it condemns its predecessors. It is important to remember that Paula's primary accomplishment is the neutralization of Hein, who mistakenly assumes that he acts with the approval of his fellow conspirators. Ultimately, it is Hein who is the monster, and not the Anti-Hyppocrates, who come across as a pompous assembly of old men incapable of controlling the extremist fringe within their organization. The local chapter of the Anti-Hyppocrates is only disbanded as a side effect of Hein's murders.

Stefan Ruzowitzky's Anatomie (Anatomy, 2000)
Medical ethics being dissected
Hence, in the final scene, two of Paula's fellow students talk about their plans now that the summer program has ended with the demise of the Anti-Hyppocrates. One mentions rumors that another chapter of the society still operates in Berlin, while the other has decided to take over her father's private practice. Government supervision, she explains, is not quite as strict in the case of private practices, and thus permits some degree of illegal scientific experimentation. Their conversation is interrupted by the morgue attendant, who asks them how things are going. "Same as always," is their answer.

This is a wry hint that the ethical problems of professional competitive science are far from resolved, and that the technocratic elite controlling the institution will continue to provide a safe haven for fascist ideology. Paula may have succeeded in exposing the secret machinations of the past in the present, but not much has changed inside a scientific establishment that keeps an eye on profit margins and considers patients primarily as paying consumers of technological goods and services.

Steffen Hantke

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Also of interest
About the author

Steffen Hantke has written on contemporary American literature and film. He serves as an area chair for horror at the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Association and is currently guest-editing an issue of Paradoxa on horror. He teaches at Regis University in Denver.


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