Near the end of Spoor, Agnieszka Holland’s 2007 Silver Bear-winning feature, a jittery woman recalls a local legend that used to frighten her as a child. The story of the Night Hunter, a spirit in pursuit of evil people, becomes a parable for the entire film as a whole folkloric act of justice, when members of the small Polish town’s hunting party disappear under mysterious circumstances. Melding its whodunit narrative with uncanny suspects, the film takes a critical stance on the human-animal relationship. Through an unsettling portrayal of hunting rituals intertwined with murder mystery, Spoor questions pre-supposed hierarchical structures, be it that of man over woman, or of human over animal. Despite being drawn up from various genre forms such as the detective story, eco-thriller, and dark comedy, Spoor concocts a world that is indiscernible from our own. That is, if we took animals seriously.
Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat) is a part-time English teacher and a full -ime animal activist in a place that’s more a hunting ground than a town. Hunting is equally a means and an end for the townsmen, as it is safeguarded by local authorities and revered as a rite of passage into manhood. Like many phallocentric traditions, it also excludes women while testifying to the domination of man over beast. It is precisely this presupposed hegemony that Spoor puts to the test, by singling Duszejko, a retired engineer that speaks several languages, as the odd one out. As she teams up with a domestically abused woman whom she names “Good News” (Patricia Volny), an epileptic IT engineer (Jakub Gierszal), and a Czech entomologist (Miroslav Krobot), the oddballs tackle a violent town order in an unexpectedly radical way.
By introducing an elderly woman as the film’s protagonist, Agnieszka Holland shines a light on a character type usually bound to supporting roles, therefore making a feminist point. The figure of an old maid is conventionally typified as a female lacking sexualized attributes, existing on the fringe of society. Continuously affirming this, the men of power in the town take turns mispronouncing Duszejko’s name, swapping it for “Duszenko” (the former deriving from the Polish word for soul,” the latter, from the verb “to strangle,” making this repetition a telling Freudian slip). In bureaucratic negligence, they ignore her official letters and pleas with dismissal, ultimately labeling her as the town’s freak. Amputating a strong, educated woman out of her societal authority showcases a politically significant symptom that Spoor addresses, namely, solidified gender/age structures. The film’s emotional undercurrent is related to both feminism and animal activism: the rage against a debatable (hu)man domination.
While debates about the anthropocentric nature of cinema as a medium stir both academic film and animal studies, Spoor lends a compassionate look through its lenses. The joint camerawork of Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski proves equally attentive to humans, nature, and animals, although not in the same frame, comprising a multi-levelled microcosm of the small desolate town unfolding between the Polish-Czech-German borders. The forests belts and mountain peaks of Lower Silesia are nothing short of a fairytale backdrop for the film, observed in the course of four seasons. Long shots cover acres of land enveloped in mist, the human presence marked by tiny figures or cars toiling over the mountain trails. Composing a paean to nature and its virginal beauty, the camera glides over frosty hills and glistening sunrises, separating man from nature. While stitching together humanless episodes with manifestations of animal cruelty, the film rattles the cage we are put in as spectators, further agitating and provoking a strong reaction against abuse and belittlement. In this tripartite scheme of the world, man is nothing but the middle ground between animals and nature.
When approaching animals, the camera is lowered in significant proximity to the ground, it empathetically shrinks to the size of a fox, or even to that of a beetle. By bridging the distance between camera and recorded object, in an impromptu documentarian mode, it achieves a touching intimacy that makes a participant out of the animal, rather than a merely observed entity. By allowing more screen time to animals, the film entrusts them with more agency than a role of a witness, an incommunicable way of participating in events. Nevertheless, the world seems uncompromisingly cruel under such sharp macro lenses, steadfast when facing a massacre, a decaying body, or a slaughtered animal arranged as a spectacle for passers-by. While lingering on repulsive imagery may suggest a dispassionate viewpoint that affirms life and death are intertwined, the cinematography claims a fully empathizing stare: one that does not look away.
Early in the opening sequence, a visual correspondence aligns the crookedness of tree branches with deer antlers. When the camera trades its incisiveness for a blurred version of reality, it is as if a spell has transformed flora into fauna, or they were not that separate to begin with. While Spoor aims to reclaim animals and avoid their reduction to hunting game and prey, it also serves as a wildlife catalogue by showing horses, roe deer, foxes, wild boars, hares and more in their natural habitat, without any precise narrative function. Such stoppage of the plot drive also compliments the film’s overwhelmingly empathetic concern. In fact, it serves to show that animals are always there.
Animals persist: as prey, as accomplices, as paganistic sacrifice during a church mass, or as everyday objects. We see what becomes of animals when they are no more: the close-up of fine leather boots, a delicate figurine of a wild boar, the fluffy duck feathers from a torn-up down jacket, taxidermy trophies hanging on the wall, a wolf costume, all the way to Playboy bunny ears. A mirror version of the wildlife catalogue is assembled here, one of the animal after-life. While Duczeijko constantly interrogates her fellow citizens’ morals, animal scholars keep asking that very same question: can animals be murdered, and animals themselves able to kill, or is that right reserved for the homo sapiens? In a way, Spoor is not unlike a wild animal itself: if you chase it with a moral didactic, it will certainly outrun you. If, instead, you slow your pace and return its empathetic look, that human-animal taxonomy will seem to be, at once, irrelevant.