A new film channels the spirit and traces the lineage of Laika, the first creature ever to orbit the Earth.
Laika, a stray dog taken off the streets of Moscow, launched into the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 2 mission in November 1957, just a month later The take-off of Sputnik 1 opened the space age. The 11 lbs. (5 kilograms) mixed race quickly died of overheating and circled the Earth like a corpse until April 1958, when Sputnik 2 fell back into the atmosphere and burned.
Laika was sacrificed to aid humanity̵
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“This movie is about another species’ relationship with us humans. A species that was used in history of space in two ways: both as an experimental object and as a symbol of courage and heroism, “directors Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter said in a statement.
“The dogs had to fulfill humanity’s dream by conquering the cosmos for them,” the duo added. “Their story has become a fairy tale, a rising legend, of a bitterness that we have chosen to illustrate. ‘Space Dogs’ is dedicated to these fables and legends, to unknown worlds and their discoverers.”
Kremser and Peter unearthed stunning, never-before-seen footage of Laika and other Soviet space dogs. Some of these archive fragments show pups prepared for their historic launches, their poor little bodies bristling with implanted tubes and threads. Other footage shows the post-landing processing of the clipped, shaky strays lucky enough to survive their orbital tests.
Obtaining this priceless historical material was no easy task. Kremser and Peter knew it existed, thanks to suggestions from scientists and other sources involved in the Soviet space program in the 50s.
“But in the classic Russian archives in Moscow, there were only propaganda images and short snippets of it all,” Kremser told Space.com.
Eventually, the duo tracked the footage back to the file Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, which conducted much of the research and monitoring of dogs in Laika’s day and continues to support the Russian human spaceflight program today.
“In their basement, there were super-old coils, almost intact and not published at all,” Kremser said.
Eventually she and Peter convinced the Institute to let them use the footage, which had begun to show her age. “We did a complete restoration and were able to offer that the material itself was freshly preserved and also placed in a new context,” said Kremser.
That context is complex and artistic. To begin with, “Space Dogs” isn’t primarily about Laika and her fellow space explorers; the historical footage comprises less than a third of the approximately 90-minute film. Most of the documentary is devoted to strays on the streets of modern Moscow, in particular to a young floppy-eared dog who roams the city with charismatic enthusiasm.
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In fact, Kremser and Peter had no intention of making a film about space at all. The original idea was simply to profile a pack of stray dogs, creating “a multi-layered cinematic experience completely dedicated to them,” Peter told Space.com.
“A layer, let’s say, is a metaphor,” he added. “We found it simply interesting that they appear when human control is waning, when the city is collapsing, the city is partially falling apart. These creatures have their own unique space to conquer.”
The directors also found that stray dogs are attractive protagonists, with intriguing social interactions and their own language. Furthermore, Kremser and Peter wanted to question how humanity views animals.
In storytelling and nature documentaries, “they’ve always assigned very clear roles to animals,” Kremser said. “Nature in these terms is always very distant or very humanized, and we wanted it [shine] a different light on this topic. “
That light shines in “Space Dogs”. The Austrian impressionist documentary offers a vision of Moscow through the eyes of a puppy, showing us a blurred and mixed place on the edge of the human and canine world. And Laika’s corner, which took shape after Kremser and Peter read about the pioneering dog’s street origins, gives the film additional depth and emotional strength, allowing it to reach truly cosmic heights.
After all, painting such a detailed portrait of the dangerous, complex and often joyful life of a Moscow street dog gives us a much better appreciation of what those Soviet space scientists sacrificed in the name of progress more than half a century ago. And it reminds us that maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to make such sacrifices in the future.
“Space Dogs” was released in an exclusive virtual cinema launch on September 11th away Anthology film archives, Alamo On Demand is Laemmle Theaters. The documentary will be released nationwide starting September 18. For cities and play dates, visit http://icarusfilms.com/other/playdate.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.