Danish documentarian Max Kestner attempts to pin down the meaning of life in his expansive CPH:DOX opener

LIFE_main still_cred. Jacob Sofussen

Source: Jacob Sofussen

‘Life And Other Problems’

Dir: Max Kestner. Denmark. 2024. 100mins

What is the meaning of life? The great unanswered question is addressed by Danish documentarian Max Kestner in his latest work, in which he speaks with global scientists in the hopes of finally pinning down this elusive subject. While some of the insights he gleans make for interesting viewing, his attempts to pack in so much material makes Life And Other Problems feel more like a jumping-off point for further exploration than a cohesive film in its own right.

 Fascinating and frustrating in equal measure

That may not pose a problem for some viewers when the film opens CPH:DOX; there can, after all, be no easy answers to this fundamental issue, and the film is likely to spark post-screening debate. Many, though, will find Kestner’s meandering, near-experimental approach exasperating given the complexity of the ideas being discussed. 

The film continues Kestner’s fascination with the human condition and follows 2021’s Little Galaxies, which also premiered at CPH:DOX. Life And Other Problems is his most expansive film yet, although Kestner is inspired by two very specific events: his own evolving fatherhood, which makes him question his biological legacy, and the 2014 killing of Marius, a young giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo. When the media reported Marius was to be culled because the zoo had a surplus of giraffes, and his genes were not essential to the species, it resulted in an international outcry. Hate mail was was sent from all over the world, and many individuals offered to give the animal a home — including a local conservation centre, a wealthy Hollywood fixer and the head of the Chechen Republic.

What, asks Kestner, makes Marius more worthy of global compassion and outrage than any other creature? What gives humans the right to act as judge, jury and executioner over the animal kingdom? Why are we so high up in the biological pecking order? And what, by extension, is our true relationship to animals, each other and Earth itself? 

Kestner deploys a team of global experts to help him wade through these deep philosophical waters. Some interviewees are fascinating, including Italian microbiologist Donato Giovannelli, with whom Kestner travels to Chile to collect samples of underground microbes to be studied. Equally as engrossing, if slightly less charismatic, is American biologist Michael Levin, who uses bioelectricity to set individual cells free from their programmed instructions and watches as they forge their own twisting paths. And Oxford veterinarian Charles Foster is both intriguing and comedic as he attempts to live as various animals — wolves, bears, badgers — in order to better understand their consciousness. 

Animal consciousness, cellular free will, microbiology, evolution — Kestner asks his audience to scale a mountain of ideas. He does try to keep things light, deploying a freewheeling score from Maxwell Sterling and a brisk edit from Michael Aaglund (A House Made Of Splinters), which successfully weaves the numerous interviews together. He also retains moments that other directors may have excised — a walker interrupting a forest interview, a misunderstanding between cells having ‘motion’ or ‘emotion’ — to show that, despite the extraordinary topics under discussion, he and his subjects are only human.

Yet one wonders if the film would have made more of an impact if it had focused on fewer things, and explored them in more depth. Linking imagery — sometimes microscopic, often shot with thermal cameras — of sea creatures, trees, deep space, children playing etc., is beautiful, but acts more like a cosmic screensaver than a narrative device. And some of the interviewees (including PETA head Ingrid Newkirk, a forest logger who talks briefly about the consciousness of trees and a pair of fungi experts) are so fleeting as to make little impact.

Too much time is also spent with Marius. His story is undoubtedly interesting, particularly given Copenhagen Zoo’s then-director Bengt Holst’s unwavering belief that he did the right thing, biologically and ethically, in killing the animal. (In fact, the zoo went so far as to dissect Marius outside on the pavement in front of a crowd: graphic imagery which may prove as much of a challenge for some viewers as it did for the frothing-at-the-mouth Fox News presenter who suggested it was enough to make serial killers out of any children watching.) Still, the myriad interviews and archive footage surrounding this incident rather belabour the point, and take up time which could have been given to the more involving sections — and those that get closer to the truth Kestner is trying to crack.

One of these comes towards the end of the film, when Danish evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev admits that, despite his years of research, he cannot help but believe in what he describes as a “higher power”. (It’s worth noting that while notions of creation and gods are touched upon, Kestner’s is a purely scientific exploration, with no religious or spiritual experts.) This existential conundrum — that, despite all of the evidences of science there is much that is unknown, and possibly unknowable — is at the heart of a film which proves fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.

Production companies: Bullitt Film

International sales: DR Sales, Kim Christiansen kimc@dr.dk

Producers: Vibeke Voge

Cinematography: Jacob Sofussen, Maria Von Hausswolff, Sturla Brandth Grovlen, Emil Aagaard, Masafumi Seki, Noah Collier, Max Kestner

Editing: Michael Aaglund

Music: Maxwell Sterling