Sunday, July 30, 2017

Future Imperfect: Dead Man’s Letters

It was produced in 1986, but this Soviet post-apocalyptic drama envisions a world of widespread environmental devastation and a weak central government that still tries to maintain its authority through brutal and arbitrary assertions of power. In other words, nothing has changed for Soviets, except maybe for the millions who died in the nuclear blast. Existence rather than life goes on for a professor futilely searching for his missing son in Konstantin Lopushansky’s Dead Man’s Letters, which screens during MoMA’s ambitious but oddly titled film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.

The Professor is sort of like a post-apocalyptic Nicholas Sparks character. He essentially narrates the film through ruminative letters ostensibly written to his son Eric, even though he realizes it is highly unlikely they will ever be read by the intended recipient. His wife sort of survived, but she is fast succumbing to radiation sickness, dementia, and who knows what else. They have found temporary refuge in a shelter below a Hermitage-like museum, which explains the high quality of surrounding bric-a-brac and detritus.

In flashbacks, we witness the impact at Soviet ground zero and watch the Professor’s desperate search for Eric in various makeshift hospitals and morgues. Grotesque yet visually arresting, these sepia-toned sequences have the look and feel Hieronymous Bosch. They are some of the most effective passages of the film. However, the high point is undeniably the eulogy the museum director gives to mankind before committing suicide in despair. Rather than condemn man, he praises our tragic outsized ambition and the capacity to love that produced so much great art. Frankly, it is quite a refreshing sentiment, compared to the contemporary eco/outbreak/zombie thrillers that argue humanity is fundamentally evil and deserves to give way to snail darters and cockroaches (looking at you, Girl with All the Gifts).

Both the style and subject matter of Letters largely overwhelms the veteran cast. Nevertheless, as the Professor, Rolan Bykov still manages to project dignity and a profound sense of loss. Physically, he resembles Wojciech Pszoniak in Andrzej Wajda’s 1990 Korczak, especially when the Professor assumes guardianship of a group of outcast children. Yet, it is Iosif Ryklin who truly defines and redeems the film as the museum director (sometimes credited as “The Humanist”). His farewell address is the sole identifiable element that qualifies Letters for MoMA’s Future Imperfect, a series that explores the ways science fiction is uniquely qualified to determine what it means to be human, but it is more than sufficient justification.

Letters’ unambiguous religious symbolism might surprise many, given its Soviet origins. However, the end titles make it clear the film was partly (if not largely) produced with the Western nuclear freeze movement in mind. Clearly, the hope was if the gullible West took a gander at the suffering wrought by nukes, they would force Reagan administration to unilaterally halt the military build-up, cluelessly giving the Soviets time to regroup and rebuild. We now know nobody was more concerned about the potential destruction a nuclear war would cause than Ronald Reagan himself, but he could see deception and manipulation for what it was.

Lopushansky assisted Tarkovsky during the production of Stalker—and it is easy to see the master’s influence. We can also see echoes of Letters in Aleksay German’s Hard to Be a God. Of course, both Stalker and German’s film were based on novels written by the Strugatsky Brothers, Arkady and Boris, the latter also being a co-screenwriter of Letters, so you could say all three films are closely related. As a result, Letters is one of the better Soviet Bloc post-apocalyptic movies, far superior to August at the Hotel Ozone (screening tomorrow). Recommended for those who appreciate strong imagery or are nostalgic for some Soviet duck-and-cover, Dead Man’s Letters screens again today (7/30) at MoMA, as part of Future Imperfect.

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