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The Russian movie "977" (Девять Семь Семь) with subs

2017 692



The number 977, glowing in bright red digits in the title shot, sets the viewer up for what promises to be an old-fashioned ghost-in-the-machine science fiction drama. Indeed, this intensely lyrical film operates not on any pretense at futurism, but rather a deeply unsettling nostalgia for an earlier age of bio-social engineering.

What does "977” signify? The answer is provided in a series of fairly quick sequences at the beginning of the film. A young scientist, Ivan Dmitrievich, arrives at a deceptively idyllic country estate, which turns out to be a research facility. He is put in charge of "the seventh department” (sed'moi otdel), whose objective is to arrive at a measurement of the most intense human emotion. Ivan, who gained a modicum of fame for positing in a theoretical paper that this optimal number is 977, is given the opportunity to prove his hypothesis experimentally at the institute. A select coterie of subjects, both male and female, is ready and waiting for the scientist. All the protagonist has to do is put them in a "box,” a hermetic room with a revolving camera and a speaking tube that transmits "currents” of the mind into a smaller box with a digital display. The numbers are measured from an adjoining room, in which researchers observe and manipulate the so-called "volunteers.”

If all this sounds terrifically retro, it is meant to be. The narrative unfolds in an emphatically underscored time warp. Even Ivan’s arrival is portrayed as a temporal leap: from looking at his own reflection in a train window with blank darkness outside, he seamlessly transitions into a distinctly imperial-style yellow stucco building bathed in sunlight. His first encounter with the director, Sergei Sergeevich, takes place against the backdrop of a miniature indoor garden as Bach plays on a massive 1950s-era reel-to-reel recorder. Even though plants are treated as sentient beings needing musical stimulation―a scientific view that hearkens back to the early twentieth century―a chance remark from the same director reveals the diametrically opposite attitude towards the small community of humans housed on camp cots in the great hall. The director, who almost exaggeratedly enacts the stereotypical figure of an absent-minded professor, names "biophysics” as the discipline to which the seventh department is dedicated. This term is inextricably linked with early Soviet experiments in the creation of the New Man. Biophysics was a common label for a plethora of attempts to quantify, optimize, and transform the physical and psychological profile of the populace in the 1920s and 1930s. Bolstered by the fad for Taylorism and Fordism among the revolutionary elite, such projects were institutionalized through Aleksei Gastev’s Central Labor Institute, Ivan Pavlov’s psychoneural laboratories, and Nikolai Bernstein’s school of biomechanics; they also enjoyed a brief if problematic revival in the cybernetic era of the 1950s and 1960s. Apart from the one reference to biophysics, however, the murky legacies of 977 are invoked only indirectly through highly nuanced details. Props relating to both the sciences and the arts―representing the rational and ephemeral finer side of the human machine―play an unobtrusive but key role in constructing allusions to past visions of engineering body and soul.

Reviewed by Anindita Banerjee

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