Poster for Space Dogs (2020), dir. Elsa Kremser & Levin Peter (all images courtesy Icarus Films)

Dogs were among the first animals sent into outer space, and were a crucial part of the Soviet space program in the 1950s and ’60s. The first living being to orbit the Earth was a dog — the now-famous Laika, a Moscow stray recruited to fly Sputnik 2 in 1957. She was a sacrifice for science, perishing a few hours into her journey. The Soviet Union is gone and the golden age of space exploration is over, but street dogs continue to be an issue in Moscow. The new documentary Space Dogs draws an unlikely but fascinating connection between today’s strays and those that once ventured into space.

The film alternates between scenes shot with contemporary dogs on the streets of Moscow and archival footage of space dogs being subjected to various tests and preparations for their flights. In both cases, it adopts a dog’s-eye view. The street scenes are shot on the dogs’ level, and the archival footage usually crops out human faces in favor of centering the dogs in the frame. In telling these animals’ stories, directors Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter decline to anthropomorphize them, instead asking the audience to try out an alien perspective.

From Space Dogs

The overriding sense of that perspective is confusion. Presented without any context, the space program’s tests become as strange and intimidating as one imagines they must have been for the dogs. (The emphasis on their bodies in the footage reinforces this.) Likewise, in the modern-day scenes, human structures lose their signifiers for whatever functions they were made for — signs or other indicators are usually either cropped out or kept out of focus. The built environments simply become labyrinths for the dogs to explore, at turns sources of food, refuge, danger, and more. While the modern dogs are not cosmonauts, they might as well be explorers on another planet, navigating a world not made for them, but to which they’ve ably adapted.

Soviet scientists took dogs off the street to use in their programs because they believed such animals would be better-suited to the extreme conditions of space travel than domesticated ones. Space Dogs does not shirk from the sometimes-gruesome nature of the tests performed on the space dogs (avoid this one if you don’t like seeing needles and tubes going into various body parts), nor from the often-brutal reality of everyday life for street dogs (also avoid if onscreen animal fighting and death will upset you). It is an unblinking look at the nature of survival, which is seldom pretty. In the dogs, one can see a metaphor for Russian history itself; a proud people who have often had to struggle to live, whose struggles once elevated them to the cosmos.

From Space Dogs

Space Dogs is now available in virtual cinemas.

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Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.

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