CPH:DOX 2024 review: Life and Other Problems (Max Kestner)

“At times the film becomes not just a story and a web of information, but an aesthetic space, where even the most well-ingrained knowledge of life is up in the air.”

When Copenhagen Zoo in 2014 decided to euthanize Marius the Giraffe, it set off a global firestorm of outrage. Ten years later, the death of Marius and the competing views on animal life that his death brought to the forefront becomes the hook for this rambling and Herzog-ian documentary by Max Kestner, which got the prestigious opening spot at this year’s CPH:DOX. The fact that so many people around the world seemed to feel a connection to this doomed giraffe is the starting point for a filmic discussion of how we connect to the world around us, be it cute giraffes or less visible organisms like microbes and cells.

While fairly unknown abroad, Max Kestner is one of the big names on the Danish documentary scene. His Copenhagen Dreams (2009) was a frontrunner for the wave of poetic and hybridized Danish documentary films, spurred on by the aesthetic principles supported at the CPH:DOX festival, and including films like Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), triple Oscar-nominee Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen), and IDFA Award-winner Apolonia, Apolonia (Lea Glob, 2022). In Denmark, the best below-the-line talent routinely switches between documentary and fiction, and Copenhagen Dreams for instance had one of the breakthrough film scores by the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Frankly speaking, Life and Other Problems has a frighteningly great line-up of cinematographers, including Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who shot Oscar-winner Another Round (2020), and Maria von Hausswolff, who has photographed all of Hlynur Pálmason’s films including Godland (which got a runner-up mention in Best Cinematography at the 2023 ICS Awards). It is a lot of talent in a film that is to a large extent a talking-heads documentary, where people complain about a dead giraffe while scientists talk about aspects of biology. It speaks to the focus Max Kestner puts on aesthetics, and it results in Life and Other Problems being at times a remarkably beautiful film.

But the intention is clearly to make something more akin to late Werner Herzog films like Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016), which is to some extent also a talking-heads documentary about the internet but tries to elevate the material by including Herzog’s personal musings, as well as more abstract sequences. Max Kestner is the narrator of Life and Other Problems – and people might be impacted by how much his voice and accent makes him sound like Lars von Trier. He includes his own life a lot, speaking over a parade of short clips and photographs. His presence is always felt in the interview scenes, including a wonderful moment where he confronts an expert’s claim that cells have ‘emotions’, making the startled man respond “No, I said MOTION!

Such a moment could have been cut, if the film was trying to tell us facts and figures about life and biology. But the film isn’t just interested in that. It’s interested in questions, in things that science still doesn’t know, and most of all it is interested in human connections. It is startling how angry people still look when they speak about a giraffe that died years ago, while it’s also a bit unsettling to see the man who shot and dissected the giraffe speak matter-of-factly about how well they tricked Marius into thinking he was getting a treat, so that they could shoot him in the head without him seeing it coming. What kind of connection did giraffe and man have in that moment, asks Kestner, in one of the few moments where the film isn’t firmly on the side of the Zoo.

But overall, what the film creates are larger connections between human beings. It looks at a moment in which large parts of the world were connected in outrage over a fairly routine culling of a zoo animal. And it creates its own connections between Kestner and a community of researchers, such as Danish DNA expert Eske Willerslev and English philosopher Charles Foster. Kestner goes into nature with Willerslev and Foster, goes on field research with microbe biologists Karen Lloyd and Donato Giovannelli, and finds inspiration in Maurice Maeterlinck’s book The Intelligence of Flowers (1907). At times the film becomes not just a story and a web of information, but an aesthetic space, where even the most well-ingrained knowledge of life is up in the air.

And yet, as the film concludes to the sound of Do You Realize?? by The Flaming Lips, the audience might feel it ends up being more banal than it could have been. It’s an ambitious documentary which is often a visual delight, but unlike earlier films of Kestner’s like Copenhagen Dreams, it doesn’t feel as if it’s treading new ground. It hits the heights of latter-day Herzog documentaries. But that isn’t his most beloved period.