“Oh, look at me, I’m dying,” says Shark, “who” has been scalded (and by a proletarian); “My body is all broken and beaten up.” We hear Shark’s defeated voiceover. Shark is a dog.
Moscow; post-Revolution, mid-1920s. Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky, whose surgical procedures have involved organ transplants from animals to humans, now seeks to “rejuvenate” Shark by giving Shark the testes and pituitary gland of a human—a hooligan stabbed to death in a barroom brawl. But Shark instead undergoes an even more radical transformation, becoming increasingly humanlike—but a nasty human “who” reflects both the criminal “he” now embodies and “his” Frankenstein’s cynical conviction that “the human heart is the rottenest in all creation.”
From Mikhail A. Bulgakov’s story, Sobachye serdtse—directed by Vladimir Bortko from wife Natalya Bortko’s script, and gorgeously photographed in black and white by Yuri Shajgardanov—satirizes the “Soviet experiment” as unnatural. Poor Shark, “who” is rechristened Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov, shouts “Bourgeois! Bourgeois! Get off the bus!” and to public applause plays the lute, sings and dances. The Professor’s “marvelous experiment,” it is announced, “has unlocked the mysteries of the human brain.” But Sharikov is increasingly brutal and lascivious (what a dog); he denounces “his” master as a Menshevik, and as the Pest Control chief “he” hunts down and strangles stray cats. The Professor’s new operation on Sharikov brings back Shark.
The film opens as a silent film, with people in the street moving in fast motion, until we hear (as we see) the snow-blowing wind at a low level to suggest Shark’s point of view. We also hear (as we see) a dilapidated door flapping open and shut—a moody metaphor for the mysteries of the human mind and of a desolate collective history. Is the film satirizing our tendency toward anthropomorphism when Shark (before the operation) looks into the Professor’s mirror and vainly remarks, “I’m handsome. Perhaps I’m a dog prince, incognito”? Twice, post-operation, Sharikov will look into the same mirror, first, perhaps to take in how ugly “he” has become (at least that is what we think) and, lastly, perhaps experiencing a twinge of shame after killing cats. “Great expectations” have so collapsed into moral bankruptcy that the film suggests a grotesque and screamingly funny parody of François Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage (1969).
Although it does grow somewhat repetitious, this is indeed a funny film. Consisting of three men and a woman dressed as a man (a visual pun on Shark’s appearance as Sharikov), the House Management Committee confronts the Professor over the spacious mansion in which he still lives. “No one in Moscow has dining rooms!” one of the men insists. “Not even Isadora Duncan!” the woman barks.
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