Director: Konstantin Lopushanky. Starring: Rolan Bykov, Iosif Rykliv, Viktor Mihaylov. USSR, 1986. IMDb: 7.7. My rating: 4/4. Post-apocalyptic portrait of mankind’s last days.
– The whole history of mankind is a history of a slow suicide of a living matter that by sheer accident acquired an ability to think – but that did not know what to do with this fateful ability. It could not find any better use for it than invention of the most effective ways of a total suicide.
(of of the main characters)
Endless piles of rusty metal, interminable yellow twilight, dirty radioactive puddles of mixed water and blood. And dead bodies. Dead bodies everywhere. Children, men, women. Everywhere. There is no hope here. It’s finished. There is no ”if”. The doomsday clock has moved. We are just witnessing the final decay of small group of survivors that will last several months, probably. There is not even a single hint about their survival. It’s a death rattle.
And imagine shot all of this in a Tarkovsky-like manner – the director Konstantin Lopushansky actually worked as assistant during ”Stalker” filming.
Perestroika was a crucial time for Soviet cinema as well. More and more things became allowed – the censorship started to close eyes on occasional nudity, violence, absurdism – things that were all cut ruthlessly before 1985. ”Dead Man’s Letters” and ”City Zero”, probably best examples of Perestroika cinema in the sci-fi genre, are the result and the reflection of that weird epoch, and it would be difficult to imagine them elsewhere.
The plot. An unexpected nuclear attack has destroyed most of life on Earth. The surviving part of the population is hiding underground – in museums, railway stations or empty houses. Nobody knew who started it. An elderly scientist Larsen (Rolan Bykov) with a small group of adults try to take care of the orphans, who are almost paralyzed and barely react. He tries to find a new hope in this world of despair.
The production. It was a debut work for Konstantin Lopushansky. The original cut was divided in two parts with an overall time of 2 hours and a half. The director decided to throw away lots of material, but finally became so confused about the film that the final cut was done by Semyon Aranovich and Aleksey German (he directed probably one of the most prominent Russian movies of last decade “Hard to Be a God”, 2013, also science fiction). The version you can see is luckily only one hour and a half, which seems perfect taken into consideration its almost documentary style. The film was shot in several Russian cities. Finding a destroyed house that was going to be demolished not faraway from Saint-Petersburg (precisely in Oranienburg) was a big luck and most scenes were shot there.
“Dead Man’s Letters” was released right in the heat of the Cold War during Perestroika, when nuclear arms race was one of the most relevant questions – the nuclear stockpile of USSR for the first time ever surpassed the USA. The film was spotted in Europe as well, receiving several awards, one on which on Cannes festival. The release coincided with Chernobyl accident, thus becoming even more relevant.
What I liked. ”Dead Man’s Letters” is a rare movie. It turns you inside out. I saw it for the first time about 6 years ago and couldn’t calm down for weeks. It was made by Konstantin Lopushansky, who was Tarkovsky’s assistant during the shooting of “Stalker”. Now, when I have re-watched this 1986 post-apocalyptic humanity portrait again, it had the same effect on me. Lopushansky was an assistant during Stalker’s production and Tarkovsky’s influence is easily felt here. But he is not blindly copying his teacher – while ”Dead Man’s Letters” feels profound and visually stunning, it’s not as transcendental and mysterious as Tarkovsky’s cinema, but rather a choking documentary of a possible future outcome. I don’t say it often about films, but ”Dead Man’s Letters” may easily the way you see the world, the streets, the people, the rain… the sun. The whole reality seems more fragile, and more meaningful. The atmosphere of the film is in such a decay that even the earliest Nine Inch Nails albums would sound like Pet Shop Boys.
As you might have guessed, Lopushansky is not really interested in action. The director uses the post-apocalyptic world to explore the decomposition of the society from ethical and moral point of view, raising complex ethical and moral choices. Some surrender easily, the others live in hope. Somebody sacrifices his own life to help the others, while those who try to be rational just leave them behind, because “how can we help the sick if we are not able to save the healthy?” My consistent use of the word “decay” doesn’t have the same meaning as one could suggest after watching Western movies. It’s Tarkovsky-like decay, where little is happening and we are contemplating still frames with little movement (“Stalker” would be the main point of reference). Dead bodies shown here are not some average corpses you’ll see in a western post-apocalyptic movie, to be clear. They are everywhere, even kids, shown in detail and being just a landscape element here.
The acting deserves highest appraisal from all the cast. The main character Larsen was played by Rolan Bykov, one of the most prominent Soviet actors, who starred in more than 100 movies in 40 years. He found the right tone for the film, expressing himself with silence, on halftones, with subtlety and obedience towards the fate, still having hope in his eyes. The rest of the cast was also brilliant.
The frame building and photography are very good, meaningful and precise. The whole film is shot through a special yellow lens – according to Larsen, the main character, the world now exists in a perpetual twilight with no time. I haven’t seen a better visual incarnation of nuclear winter. It’s not easy to watch… nor it shouldn’t.
What I didn’t like. It is not really a criticism, but at times the film felt too laboured if compared to ”Stalker”, which was airy and weightless even though it was 2 times longer.
Worth watching? Probably one of the most important realistic post-apocalyptic documents we have so far (together with ”Threads”). “Dead Man’s Letters” must be shown in schools or during UN meetings. It’s a meaningful, visually beautiful but ugly portrait of a world in decay, witnessing humanity’s final days through the endless radioactive haze. With its documentary feel, the film shows the destroyed world without any decorations, raising complex moral and ethical questions. A timeless masterpiece.
P. S. Here is an interesting review in Italian if somebody’s from Italy here.
By the way, Lopushansky continued to work in this theme and 3 years later released somewhat of a spiritual successor ”A Visitor to a Museum”. A review will follow.