The Man Who Thought Life is something of a legend in Danish cinema, particularly among science fiction fans. It has never been released on DVD (nor, as far as I know, on VHS), and was only ever shown on TV once or twice, if that. Once in a blue moon, however, it appears for special screenings at film festivals, as it did this year, and it was an absolute must for me, as it is often spoken of as the best science fiction movie ever to be produced in Denmark, which also means that I have wanted to see it for many years – ever since high school, in fact (and that was twenty years ago).
The movie impressed the hell out of me, and I can happily report that it entirely lives up to its legend.
The main character is Dr. Max Holst, a successful neurosurgeon. One day an intense little man named Steinmetz shows up, who has the real ability to create objects out of thin air, using only his mind. As no one believes him at first, he is held at a ward for mental patients, but manifests the key to his door and escapes. As he has a special interest in Dr. Holst, Steinmetz subsequently invites Holst to his large mansion, which is full of expensive paintings and sculptures, and proves to him that he can in fact materialise objects. Steinmetz’s abilities are evolving by leaps and bounds, and is progressing from being able to create objects only to being able to create living things. His ultimate ambition is to be able to create a human being. He tells Dr. Holst that if he will only perform a certain brain operation on him, Steinmetz will become able to attain his goal. He’s got all the necessary equipment set up in his basement. Dr. Holst, however, is too spooked by the whole thing to agree to this mad scheme, and refuses. Steinmetz then sets about manipulating Holst’s life, to pressure him into performing the operation. By then Steinmetz has become able to create a temporary human being, and in the hope that he can perhaps make his own creation perform the operation, he manifests a doppelganger of Dr. Holst. This double proceeds to take over Dr. Holst’s life, creating chaos for him professionally and personally. And then Dr. Holst starts fighting back. The ending has the dual virtue of being both unexpected and satisfying.
There is so much art in this movie. The thinking up of objects, and then of life, can represent human culture’s reverse-engineering of nature’s various elements, from the simple to the complex, increasing our understanding and ramping up the level of scientific inquiry at every turn. Dr. Holst represents established science while Steinmetz symbolizes some new and amazing reality that challenges old ideas of how things work. Is there a better theme for science fiction – the literature of enlightenment – than radical science challenging conservative science? I certainly can’t think of any.
Director Jens Ravn was at this festival showing, and expressed optimism that a DVD release may be on the way. The movie was a critical but never a commercial success, but it could conceivably find an audience today, now that it has become known as the great achievement that it is.
Director: Jens Ravn
Cast: John Price, Preben Neergaard, Lotte Tarp, Lars Lunøe and others
Runtime: 93 min.