With a 2024 programme that includes two masterpieces of bovine cinema, WFS Vice President Johnny Crawford decided to explore how the concept of animal consciousness has been depicted by different filmmakers.

What do filmmakers see in the eyes of animals?

In the 2012 adaptation of The Life of Pi by Ang Lee , the protagonist is lectured by his father Santosh on the topic of animal consciousness…

Animals don’t think like we do! People who forget that get themselves killed. When you look into an animal’s eyes, you are seeing your own emotions reflected back at you, and nothing else.

This statement, taken from Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, is an articulation of one of the film’s big themes. When Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a giant (mostly CG) Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, he is presented with the philosophical question of whether to view the tiger as a sentient, conscious, feeling being like himself, or a wild animal. The film ultimately comes down on the side of belief: whether or not animals really have souls, it makes for a better story to presume they do.

This question, however, has been interpreted in different ways by different filmmakers.

The way Werner Herzog tells it, the answer is simple. For cinema’s most eloquent nihilist, seeing your emotions reflected back at you in an animal’s eyes isn’t just foolish, it’s dangerous. The futility of trying to understand nature in human terms is summed up best in Herzog’s monologue in Burden of Dreams (1982).

The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain… Taking a close look at – at what’s around us there – there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.

This theme, of the unknowable violence of nature, is revisited throughout Herzog’s documentaries, most famously in Grizzly Man (2005) where subject Timothy Treadwell’s deluded idea that the bears are his friends results in his brutal death alongside his girlfriend. On a slightly less bleak note is Herzog’s much-memed hatred of chickens:

Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.

While we might appreciate the poetry in Herzog’s ambivalence towards animal intelligence, most of us, particularly those of us who share our lives with pets, are likely to find these views a little extreme.

Even if we acknowledge the limitations of truly understanding animals, we are just as often drawn to filmmakers who give it a shot.

This year, we are screening Cow (2021) in which Andrea Arnold finds an intelligent sensitive documentary subject in Luma, a dairy cow from Kent. With none of Herzog’s editorialising, Arnold gives the viewer the space to project their own emotions onto the cow. However, the use of diegetic music cues definitely nudges us towards empathising with Luma, and viewers are more likely than not to come away from the film viewing her as a thinking, caring, loving creature.

It is clear that, even when operating in the vérité tradition like Cow, filmmaking choices play a huge part in how we interpret the intelligence of the animals on screen. This can be seen in the two great ‘life of a donkey’ films: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)by Robert Bresson, and EO (2022) by Jerzy Skolimowski.

Both films star real donkey actors doing normal donkey stuff (compared to, for example, Lee’s CGI tiger), but the way they are filmed results in two very different movies. With Bresson’s minimalist style, Balthazar retains an air of mystery. In his ‘Great Movie’ review of the film, Roger Ebert expressed it well:

The genius of Bresson’s approach is that he never gives us a single moment that could be described as one of Balthazar’s “reaction shots.” Other movie animals may roll their eyes or stomp their hooves, but Balthazar simply walks or waits, regarding everything with the clarity of a donkey who knows it is a beast of burden, and that its life consists of either bearing or not bearing, of feeling pain or not feeling pain, or even feeling pleasure.

Skolimowski on the other hand, packs EO to the brim with reaction shots. In a very effective example of the Kuleshov effect, shots of the donkey are edited alongside shots of human characters, animals being mistreated, even an artificially intelligent robot dog. The viewer is invited to understand EO’s emotions in response to these.

Part of the reason for the different approaches is thematic concerns: Bresson’s are largely spiritual, Skolimowski’s are largely political. Films with more explicit political objectives tend to put less space between the viewer and the animal subjects. Although Arnold has said that Cow is “not a vegan film”, her directing decisions don’t necessarily discourage that interpretation.

Some of my favourite films about animal intelligence take this more explicit political approach. In films like Okja (2017) by Bong Joon-ho, the soulfulness of the subject is a scathing argument against capitalist farming techniques. In others like White God (Kornél Mundruczó, 2014), the animals overthrow their human masters.

It is a rare film that is interested in animal intelligence on its own terms, and not simply a vector for the filmmaker’s political, spiritual or philosophical concerns. Even Herzog’s films about the unknowability of the animal mind need to be understood in terms of his own thematic preoccupations.

Animal consciousness is a thorny concept and really needs a harder science fiction film to truly do it justice on its own terms. Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974) probably comes closest. In Bass’ only directorial effort, he explores the sentience of ants much like one would an alien species. That’s not to say that their intelligence is completely unknowable or illogical (à la Herzog), just that it operates on a logic divorced from human belief systems.

Bass’ film though, is an anomaly. For most filmmakers, animal intelligence is less of a scientific hypothesis and more of a vector through which they are able to explore their own political, spiritual and philosophical preoccupations (usually with animals standing where human actors would in their other films). 

Of course a cynic like Herzog is going to emphasise the unknowability of the animal mind when he spent so much time collaborating with the unknowable Klaus Kinski. Similarly, Bresson’s unaffected approach to Balthazar, with just enough religious symbolism to guide viewers to make their own leaps, is very similar to how he directed humans. More explicitly political films like Okja, White God and even Cow encourage us to relate the treatment of animal bodies to human ones.

While harder scientific approaches are welcome, film is an inherently human medium and movies about animals are usually about people.

Check out NZ On Screen’s Cow Collection for more bovine content.

And for more 70s sci-fi, Korean Cinema and, of course films about cows, check out our first and second selection of 2024 films.