“You will cry,” Victor Kossakovsky said to me, last year on a beautiful spring day in Berlin. He had just come from Cannes, where he had negotiated the film at the film festival that was supposed to make me cry. Krogufant at that time he was still called. What was it about? “Pig, chicken and cow.” A film about three animals, three species of animals that are very close to humans. Not quite as close as dogs and cats to pets. Pig, chicken and cow are farm animals. A tell-tale word. Krogufant is now called Gunda, today it will be presented at the Berlinale, in the Encounters series. A documentary in black and white about a mother sow with a big litter, about a one-legged chicken, about cattle, who – there is no better word – look into the camera.
Victor Kossakovsky is a filmmaker from Russia who is not particularly happy with Russia but neither with the rest of the world. He lives in Berlin, and has recently Aquarela made a film about the water. Kossakovsky takes big pictures, Aquarela belongs in the multiplexes, also because of the soundtrack. There is metal of the crushing variety for the desperate giant fight of icebergs. Aquarela is a view of a world without people, a memorial about element one that mankind is filling with plastic.
But Kossakovsky is not a preacher, but a comedian. If it is up to him, one must tell a terrible comedy about the state of the world, not a divine one. One day he’ll still do that, but now he’s done Gunda: a tender comedy with a few sad punch lines. A humble, although in detail quite monumental film with which he wants to make people cry, and then of course also to do without meat.
Kossakovsky has already found a famous convert. The actor Joaquin Phoenix became aware of his project and is now an Executive Producer in the credits. The man who made his role as a joker so threatening through hunger became a vegan as a child. In his words of thanks at the Oscars, at least one passage was open Gunda Coined – the place from the cow where you take the calf away, because you need your milk for the coffee or the muesli.
Gunda is a pig, although this word is almost too abstract. Gunda is a splendid mother sow, the piglets hang on her teats as on the fingers of God. Gunda grunts in a language for which Kossakovsky does the interpreting. He translates it into a language that people have to learn seriously. An idiom beyond the concept. If you are looking for a bold hypothesis about a conceivable original language before the Babylonian confusion, you could start with Gunda.
The farm on which Gunda and the chickens and cows live has an almost heavenly effect in its empty space and with its seemingly endless exploration spaces. But that is only the half truth. Because Kossakovsky is not just an observer, he is also a narrator. And his film is not a myth about the state of nature, but a finding from today. So he doesn’t spare the other side of this animal life. But I better not tell too much about it, because it is made quite impressive in terms of film, and it is also extremely sad on another level.
I didn’t cry though. I come from an area in Upper Austria where it was normal in my childhood for a pig to be slaughtered every few weeks on our neighbour’s farm. When I think back on it today, I see almost something ritual in the distributed roles with which the body of the dead animal was put to use: for example, we children had to empty the intestine, which was then washed in the well, and later the blood sausage recorded. When I was particularly brave, I went for the hook that removed the animal’s claws, a process that frightened me and also disgusted me. There is also a large film about this ritual: Le cochon (1970) by Jean Eustache.
Today blood sausage is a delicacy for me, a special dish, where I feel like I am part of this order of life that I come from and that I have stepped out of, by living in a city, by studying and reading, by educating my tastes too. Kossakovsky wants to make me and if possible the whole of humanity cry by looking at Gunda and her piglets, which makes the soul of these beings shine. “I show the animals as they are,” said Kossakovsky at the time. “And you won’t believe it.”
Gunda is actually very moving, but it does not contain a clear ethical imperative. It remains a question of the daily (and for many just the principle) decision as to how we want to deal with the relationship between humans and animals.