The recent documentary The Final Member, which could easily have been a mutedly quirky tour through the famed Icelandic Phallological Museum, somehow manages to find a deeper purpose beyond simply profiling what is essentially a room full of severed dicks floating in jars. The basic concept of the world-class Nordic penis museum is fascinating enough in the abstract, but not really worth putting together the travel funds for the long trek. So, a simple guided tour through its collection would’ve most likely been enough for a decent, but inessential documentary to survive on. Instead, The Final Member explores ideas like artists fading before completing their life’s work, the near-extinction of larger-than-life personalities, and the ways penises relate to patriotism, elevating itself above the mediocre aims a more straightforward production would’ve achieved. For a penis museum documentary, it’s surprisingly moving & thought-provoking.
There are three boisterous personalities at the heart of The Final Member’s success. The museum’s founder, Sigurdur “Siggi” Hjartarson, is of course the main subject and commands attention expertly. An educator & a family man, Siggi explains that a lot of people find his dedication to penile preservation off-putting, mistaking him for a pervert instead of the total sweetheart & academic taxonomist he truly is. He describes how he started the museum as a joke 40 years ago in his home with just a few animal specimens for show. It ballooned from there, resulting in Siggi’s now massive specimen room that features at least one penis specimen from every mammalian species except for one: human. His collection’s largest piece is, of course, the penis from a sperm whale and the smallest is the penis bone from a hamster. It’s adorable how Siggi proudly shows off his specimens (as well as his handcrafted penis art) even if most of it looks like organic garbage “with testicles!” (emphasis Siggi’s). As a guy who seems to have it all (penis-wise anyway), it’s heartbreaking to hear Siggi worry about whether or not he’ll be able to finalize his collection with a human specimen before he dies. He explains that often “artists die without finishing their work” & that thought visibly weigh heavy on him as his health deteriorates. That’s where the other boisterous two personalities enter the story.
As the title indicates, The Final Member is less about the Icelandic penis museum in general and more about the race to complete the puzzle, to provide the missing piece: a human penis. There are two viable contenders aiming to fill this role, an aging Icelandic celebrity adventurer & a simple American cowboy. The Icelandic candidate, although ancient, is vocally proud of his past sexual prowess, so he has a sort of a famous penis that could bring a little bit of cultural cachet to the museum. When Siggi asks him, “Do you have any use for your penis after you’re dead?” he finds himself shrugging and offering his specimen for the collection. Not to be outdone, the American candidate offers to donate his penis to the museum while he is still alive. You see, although he is a simple cowboy, he is a simple cowboy with a deep affection for his own dick. As he puts it, “I didn’t want my penis to go away when I die,” and as the story escalates it becomes increasingly clear that he really is so proud of his American man meat (which he assumes is automatically better than the Icelandic competition based on its nationality alone) that he is dead serious about mutilating himself to become the first human entry in the collection.
The Final Member does a lot of what you might expect from a film about a penis museum: it tours the specimen room; it provides a history of the museum’s origins; it asks questions like “Why is it so taboo to talk about the penis in the 21st century?” That’s all fascinating stuff, but what’s really special is the way it finds a real story to tell at the heart of the museum’s legacy, complete with a race to the finish line and a clear contender to root for, but without adopting a mocking or a get-a-load-of-this-weirdo tone for anyone involved. It’s a story about patriotism and the satisfaction of completing your life’s work just as much as it is a profile of a room filled with thousands of penises. I expected the film to be entertaining in sort of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not kind of way, but what was delivered was a lot more revealing about both the legacy Siggi will leave behind when he dies & the differences between Icelandic & American national pride. It’s a much greater film than I expected.