Several years back, horror fans were treated to a mini explosion of German horror films that, much like the Germans, themselves, were delightfully dark and unconventional. 2000’s Anatomy (Anatomie) of stood out as, perhaps, the most commercially viable of the lot in that it embraced many of the standard slasher-style tropes, and featured an attractive cast top-lined by a familiar face in Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente. Still, the film had a very European flair and twisted sense of humor that differentiated itself enough from its American counterparts to make for a refreshing change of pace. The film was a hit in its native Germany, and, as such, spawned a sequel in 2003’s Anatomie 2, which, in a surprising departure from the first film, eschewed slasher conventions and, instead, took the series in an entirely new direction. Now, thanks to Mill Creek, both films finally make the leap to Blu-ray as part of an attractively priced double feature set.
Following in the footsteps of her terminally ill grandfather, Paula Henning (Potente) leaves behind her family and friends in Munich for a bright future in Heidelberg, the most prestigious medical school in Germany. Boarding a train headed for this erudite and cultured anatomical Mecca, Paula bonds with Gretchen (Loos), a former classmate distinguished with playing a cat-and-mouse game of musical beds, also making this pilgrimage. Their conversation coming to a close, the next act begins with a man drifting from a state of unconsciousness to rapid-eye-movement, blinking and flitting under a bright light, naked, lying face-up on a cadaver's table. A handful of "surgeons" are standing over him, one prying his eyelids apart, acknowledging that the he has regained consciousness. Although paralyzed, he manages to crane his neck enough to see surgical clamps holding back the flesh on his chest and stomach. Glancing at his arm, he gapes in horror as the skin has been delicately peeled back, revealing an artistic cross-section of the muscles and tendons and bones in his fingers and wrist. As the death doctors continue in their ruthless excavation of the man's organs and intestines, his visage reflects the excruciating pain he is suffering, and his severed vocal cords painfully vent raspy yowls.
Dovetailing this scene, the film recoils to the familiar setting of the train compartment where Paula clenches her head in her hands while Gretchen speaks incessantly about her promiscuity. Suddenly, someone shrieks for a doctor. Running down the train's corridor, Paula literally stumbles upon the body of a collapsed adolescent. Reviving him after minutes of fruitless mouth-to-mouth and cardiac massaging, Paula learns that the teenage boy also headed for Heidelberg suffers from a rare heart defect. Truly one of the doomed, David (Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey) makes an impression on Paula. Hours later, after settling into their dormitory, an older Heidelberg student announces to our protagonists that all fresh arrivals are to report to the anatomy laboratory for orientation. Promenading into the macabre presence of several disfigured cadavers, one of the accompanying girls straightens her spine and becomes poker-faced as she stutters that she saw one of the corpses move. As the lights begin to flicker, we watch as the concealed form of a man begins twitching beneath chalky sheet. In one of the film's most heart pounding sequences, Paula emphatically strides disjointedly over to the blanketed carcass, and dramatically lifts the shroud. Paula, letting out a whimper, divulges a headless torso with extremities intact. Upon closer inspection, she discovers an electrode leading from under its armpit to the laboratory's circuitry closet. Behind the closed door was a group of lighthearted, idyllic university students relishing in their own prank.
The next day, after becoming acquainted with their instructor, Professor Grombek (Traugott Buhre), the class divides into partnerships as cadavers are freighted from the meat locker to their cold, metallic slabs. Brain-addled, nauseated, and faint-hearted, Paula stares at her subject. It was David, the young man from the train who claimed to be on his last leg. Paula doesn't believe that his oversized heart caused his expiration, but that something much more unnerving and perverse is as work. As the film drudges through its own carnage, Paula observes the letters "AAA" carved into David's ankle. Asking her classmate and soon-to-be significant other (Blomberg) about the acronym, he perks up, responding that they are the initials of an underground anti-Hippocratic organization, living by the utilitarian principle that a few people must die for the benefit of many. What she doesn't realize is that Heidelberg is a breeding ground for the anti-Hippocratic society, striving to maintain their position on the summit of the medical school hierarchy, raking in Nobel prizes while throwing ethics to the wind.
A slick medical chiller written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, "Anatomie" offers a didactic perspective of the cold apathy of the scientific community. Inspired by Dr. Josef Mengele's "T-4 Euthanasia Program" conceived during the Holocaust, the film calls into question John Stuart Mill's concept of utility, and the reprehensibility of the furtherance of the medical field at the expense of innocent people. The only character in the movie with concise vision and a humanitarian mentality, Paula makes for a plucky heroine, sharply contrasted against the impersonal doctors and staff of the university.
Also capitalizing on our fascination with our internal clockwork, "Anatomie" presents several of the cagey exhibits that constituted Mannheim's Gunther von Hagens' late-nineties touring "Body Worlds" museum, intensifying the queasy atmosphere and laying the foundations for the grisly end to one or two of the characters. Also amplifying the unnerving tone of the piece is the grimly humorous muzak that thickens the tension during some of the more graphic vignettes. Fairly early on in the film, the audience is exposed to some jaw-dropping and groundbreaking special effects that have a lasting flavor and leave an unpleasant taste in your mouth.
Sequels rarely improve upon the first film. I believe, if I really sat down and thought about it, I could come up with maybe three or four films, but in the horror genre, I'd be hard-pressed to think of any besides Evil Dead 2 (which most people would discount due to the fact that it's sort of a remake rather than a proper sequel), but Anatomie 2 surprised me with its bold departure from the first film, offering a smart, brisk, and satisfying horror/sci-fi thriller.
Jo Hauser (Metschurat) is a young intern from a small German town who takes up residency at a Berlin hospital. In his first few weeks, Jo's somewhat passionate approach to medicine takes his supervisors by surprise, and lands him a place on the personal staff of legendary neuro-surgeon, Muller-LaRousse (Knaup). The professor has been working with his team to perfect an artificial muscle that not only promises to end paralysis and muscle dysfunction, but, with its computer interface, can actually make one stronger, faster, and more durable. Jo's brother, Willi (Koffler), is an invalid, slowly dying from a muscular disease that claimed the life of their father, so Mueller-LaRousse's research has more than a clinical importance to him, and he gladly accepts the team's invitation to join their special group; the Anti-Hippocratics. As in the first film, the shadowy medical organization is committed to research above all, eschewing the binding rules and regulations of normal doctors in favor of progress at any cost. When it is revealed to Jo that all of Mueller-LaRousse's students have had muscular implants, he agrees to have one of his own placed in his leg. The results are extraordinary; strength, speed, endurance. The only drawback is that, to prevent rejection, the body must be given massive doses of endorphins, which lead to addiction, and ultimately, a dependence on one another that binds them to Muller-LaRousse's cause. When it becomes clear to Jo that these experiments are being conducted at the expense of the health and safety of the professor's team, he decides to get out and expose Muller-LaRousse for what he is. However, the professor's brainwashed assistants, as well as the faceless members of the secret society, have different plans for Jo.
Anatomie 2 is a very fun and exciting thriller that really took me by surprise. It features the same polished production values of the first film, but surpasses that one by exploring the promise of the great premise set forth in the original, and expanding upon it in the tradition of great medical/horror thrillers like Cronenberg's The Brood, and the classic Coma. The film features a lot of humor, but it keeps the pace brisk and the performance by Barnaby Metschurat is a star-making turn. Ruzowitzky also shows tremendous improvement, and a keen eye for action and suspense, with dizzying camera moves, heart-pounding chase scenes, and just infuses the film with a kinetic energy that's irresistible.
Mill Creek’s Blu-ray presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. While both films look exceptional in terms of their video transfer, Anatomy is given the short-shrift with a lossy German Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (the terrible English dub is lossless) while Anatomy 2 is features a lossless German track, but no English dub at all. Also, the English subtitles on Anatomy 2 are hardcoded, which, for me, didn’t prove to be an issue, but for anyone wishing to watch the film with the optional French/Spanish subtitles will have to do so with both sets onscreen at the same time. There aren’t any extras to speak of, but, for a set that will run you less than $10 dollars for two films, one really can’t complain, especially considering the entertainment value of this set! Definitely recommended!
(ed note: Anatomy review segment provided by past contributor Died with Boots On)