Life and Times of Moscow’s Street Dogs

The first animal made to orbit the earth was the Moscow street-dog Laika, sent up in Sputnik 2 on 3rd November 1957. There was no plan to bring her back alive, and in fact she died even sooner than intended, for after a short time her capsule over-heated. The contraption with Laika’s corpse inside continued to circle the earth hundreds of times, until its scorched remnants fell to the ground in the following April. A cinematic impression of that journey is the starting-point of the film Space Dogs, conceived and directed by Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter, and just recently released. The sombre Russian voice of the narrator (very sparely used during the film) speaks of a “legend” that the ghost of Laika “has roamed the streets of Moscow ever since.”

If that seems a whimsical sweetening of an unpleasant fact, the film soon corrects it. Even for a ghost, returning to those streets wouldn’t be much of a home-coming. Not just is the life there hard and unwelcoming; the film makes painfully clear that home, for these dogs, simply means elsewhere. They are never wholly at rest, always quick to move on, always looking for something other than what’s immediately there. Even when there’s food of some sort, they seem only half-attentive, convinced that it’s not what they’re really after. They tend to congregate in pairs or groups, but their relations with one another look fragmentary and unserviceable. This life on the streets seems like a dogs’ version of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.

SpaceDog in car

The point is unhappily instanced in the already-notorious scene where a dog, the one whom the camera is mainly interested in, catches a young cat. It takes more than a few moments for the dog to kill the cat, with intervals of inattention. A half-hearted attempt is made to tear and eat the body, but then the dog loses interest. (This is all very hard to witness; if you watch the film, you may like to know that it occurs between minutes 26 and 32.) He doesn’t seem to know why he caught the cat, except that the cat was trying to get away.

It’s a scene which allegorizes the street-dog situation. Elsa Kremser says, by way of justifying the inclusion of such a painful episode, “It was important to show it, to show the wildness of these animals”, but it shows rather the reverse. These dogs are only vestigially hunters; they evolved away from their wolf-genome millennia ago, choosing or being chosen to make terms instead with the human way of life. In fact they exchanged their birthright of autonomy for a mess of pottage, as Jacob persuades Esau to do in Genesis 25, and with similar simplicity of judgement and unhappy results. And now on the streets of Moscow, as in other cities across the world, we see them deprived even of the pottage. The true ghost, then, is surely the ghost of that birthright deal; that’s what haunts them. It’s the half-glimpsed thing they’re continually looking for.

Into this wreckage of domestication came the Soviet space scientists, in their military trucks, catching dogs and measuring them to see if they would fit into a capsule, for they believed that the harsh life of the streets produced animals well-hardened for the vicissitudes of space-flight. The dogs were taken, says the narrator, “to a secret place far, far from the city gates” where further selection took place. At this point we are shown hundreds of today’s dogs in a kennels of some sort – standing in, presumably, for those 1950s cohorts. These must be strays, but they appear very much more animated than the dogs on the street, barking and ramping behind their wire-netting, urgently seeking to be noticed. Perhaps the catching and penning has aroused their expectations, reviving something of that old species symbiosis.

Well, if that was how it did indeed feel to the space dogs, the film shows how wrong they were. Their situation was in fact wholly servile, obedient to “the commands of a mighty king”, as the narrator says – more simply, to the whims of a predator, who happened not to want to eat them. What he did want is shown in Soviet archive footage from the 1950s. We see the space dog in prepchosen dogs trained to endure the forces of rocket propulsion, surgically fitted with sensors and other prosthetics, and finally sent up to try out for us the horrors of the journey itself. One or two are shown shakily resuming life on earth.

Although this archive film has never been shown before, it was evidently taken for publicity purposes. Some of it shows procedures which must have caused pain and distress, but there is no obvious impatience or rough Space dog science pichandling. The shots of the journey itself look terrifying but are hard to interpret. In fact this must all be viewed as censored material. As to what happened to the unselected dogs, we don’t know. Presumably they were directed into other and less picturable bio-science researches. Perhaps that is what those modern dogs in their cages are really waiting for. A review in the Guardian reasonably complains that we should have been told more, that these “unspeakable acts are presented without comment or context.” But it’s really the special motive of Space Dogs to keep human interpretation, even human comprehension, to a minimum. Elsa Kremser says of the street-dogs, “we realised we always think of them in relation to our world . . . But we don’t know their perspective! We wanted to find out what they think about our world.”

It’s this aim, unfulfilled as it’s doomed to be, that determines the visual and moral character of Space Dogs. Apart from the space-research footage, the film inspects the world at the height and bidding of the dogs, and at late or very early hours of the day (what Levin Peter calls “their time”). Humans are most immediately pairs of legs, striding off nowhere, or lounging space dogs picunpredictably, occasionally lunging out, occasionally bringing food or water. In themselves, these humans make little sense, loitering or gyrating round their garish lights and sounds, leaving their junk about (cars, balloons), but still the dogs are drawn to their vicinity; here if anywhere their own lives, it seems, will find their purpose. The film scrupulously refrains from suggesting what that might be. There’s no story-line here, no contrivance of any sort (though some editing of course there must have been). Accordingly, although there are longueurs (the Waiting for Godot effect), it’s an instructive and honourable film.

And if not a story, there is a sort of prospectus. The last scene shows some very young dogs, perhaps puppies. Someone apparently puts poison out for them, but one of them survives. Survival is all that’s required. So on it will go, the clumsy and shockingly costly re-casting of nature which has been our great gift to this world, and also, as poor Laika had to pioneer it, our absurdly hubristic proposed gift to such other parts of the universe as we can get at.

Notes and references:

For more about Laika and other animals used for space research see a former post in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/to-boldly-make-them-go/.  The special element of treachery involved in research using dogs is very finely dramatized in Richard Adams’s novel The Plague Dogs, discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/the-plague-dogs/

Space Dogs has won a number of awards, as detailed on the Raumzeitfilm web-site, where there are also details of its release and distribution: https://www.raumzeitfilm.com/film/en-spacedogs.  The film was released on the membership film-streaming service MUBI this month, and some interesting pages are devoted to it here: https://mubi.com/films/space-dogs-2019

Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter are quoted from an interview with Cineeuropa here: https://cineuropa.org/en/interview/376799/

The Guardian review, with a foolish punning title, was published on 10 September and can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/sep/10/space-dogs-review-cosmic-canine-mission-lacks-gravity