Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dead Man's Letters (Pisma Myortvogo Cheloveka) (1986)

There is nothing remotely uplifting about the hellish world depicted in Konstantin Lopushanskiy's "Dead Man's Letters" (aka "Letters from a Dead Man") (1986). The first thing that grabs our attention is how depressing just about everything in every frame of this film looks.

It is a post-apocalyptic nightmare of the worst kind. Total annihilation, death, destruction and decay is all that you see. There has been a major nuclear disaster, which has presumably, completely destroyed a few cities including the unnamed town in which the film is set, or perhaps even the entire world! Apart from the physical destruction of property, the air is polluted with radioactive elements, thereby making it impossible to walk in the open without a gas mask and a protective suit on. A few survivors take shelter in underground vaults of a large museum. One of them is an old physicist/professor (Rolan Bykov), the protagonist, who is nursing his ailing wife.

Some other individuals, who seem to be the military police have taken up the task of imposing curfews, isolating the dying from the healthy, and shifting them to another place which is the central bunker. Energy to light up bulbs in the world below is generated by manual pedaling. The old professor writes the titular letters to his son Eric, whose whereabouts are unknown; he is probably dead following the holocaust. We don't really see the man actually writing the letters for the most part, so it is possible that he writes them in his mind, as there is no place to send them. But these letters, the contents of which, we learn through his voice-over narration are heartfelt and full of emotion. They are sometimes cries of despair, and expressing deep regret about the past and a general lost cause, while at other times more philosophical and conveying that there could indeed be a silver lining.

He is also reeling under a sense of a huge disillusionment that his beloved science had let him and mankind down. He is unable to fathom the idea that science could be responsible for a catastrophe of such monumental proportions. Somewhere he still insists that he has some hypotheses, but no proof, that it is impossible that all of mankind has ceased to exist on the outside. However, most of the outside is a blind spot, so there is no way of knowing what is really left 'out there', beyond the known realms. And one can't go very far either, what with limited supplies, all the broken railway tracks that go nowhere, and the sorry sight of mountains of rotting corpses all around. The damage isn't just physical, but psychological as well. There is a group of children who are more or less rendered lifeless, in a strange stupour, as if in a shell-shock.

Lopushanskiy's biggest success lies in his astounding vision of mass obliteration. The visual form given to the devastation is such that it messes with your psyche and puts you into a mourning mode! This is arguably the ugliest, scariest depiction of a post-apocalyptic world to ever grace celluloid. Not only does it make you feel immensely miserable; but you also get the feeling of being suffocated and trapped in its gloomy, claustrophobic atmosphere that literally emanates rot.

One of the most effective and hair-raising sequences in the film is that of the professor visiting the central bunker, and eventually breaking into terrified screams of shock and repugnance, as he walks through a children's ward, amid their cries of agony. This sequence, along with a few other scenes and the central idea of isolated individuals in underground bunkers also brings to mind a particular vignette in Juraj Jakubisko's masterpiece, "The Deserters and the Nomads" (1968).

Lopushanskiy had been an assistant to the great Andrei Tarkovsky on his "Stalker" (1979), and the influence on his film is evident from his stylistic choices. It is almost prophetic that "Stalker" depicted a cordoned off 'zone' that, it was later said, resembled the depopulated area which was a direct consequence of the Chernobyl disaster. "Dead Man's Letters" is in turn inspired by the happenings of the Chernobyl incident. The dilapidation, the wetness of the land, the presence of water all around, and the sight of railway tracks, albeit broken ones bring some frames of "Stalker" to mind, instantly.

A striking aspect of the film is the cinematography, with its heavy usage of coloured filters, mostly a darkish tinge of yellow and in some scenes, icy cold blue. Could it be coincidental that in a film with excess of yellow dominating most frames, the protagonist in the letter voiceover, once says "..for the twilight is monotonous."? Nikolai Pokoptsev's brilliant cinematography, Aleksandr Zhurbin's eerie, somber score and Leonid Gavrichenko's terrific sound design accentuate the dreariness of the universe portrayed by Lopushanskiy.

It is a deeply disturbing picture of death and madness, as some folks give up, burst into fits of hysterical and nervous laughter, and turn suicidal. Amid lull periods of despair, there are long ramblings, albeit stemming from a mental deterioration, about what went wrong with humankind, its mistakes, lamentations about the scant remains of humanity, and advocacy of love. A theory as to how the holocaust really happened is briefly touched upon. There is a suggestion that it was accidental, thereby avoiding putting a direct blame on anyone for a planned attack, but there is no way to ascertain what really happened. For even this revelation, if at all it is one, comes in one of musings in the form of the so-called letters of the old man.

The town also isn't really supposed to be a Russian one. It is not clear, for all the artefacts, paraphernalia, weaponry and vehicles seem to suggest that it is a non-Russian territory. In one of the film's best scenes, a shot from the top shows two masked men in conversation, one the physicist and the other, presumably an astrologer, wading through the flooded ruins of a deserted library amid papers scattered all over. The astrologer, in a long monologue, possibly with a tinge of hysteria too, suggests that there really was no war, no attack. It was all written, a prophecy. Doomsday was here, the apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelation, and it was but an inevitability!

But despite the feeling that all chances are lost, our professor is the one epitome of optimism. He lights candles of hope on a presumed Christmas time with the children, highlighting the essence of Christmas, that is spreading happiness. And therein lies the principal message of Lopushanskiy's film. In showing us the ghastly nature of the aftermath of a nuclear war, and by creating a very hapless picture of the same, Lopushanskiy is attempting to open the eyes of mankind. War of any kind is a losing game all the way. Seeking happiness through a peaceful path of love, and most importantly, being human, is the wisest way to be.

The film ends with a profound quote from the Russel-Einstein Manifesto that pretty much sums this sentiment up: "There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest."

Score: 10/10


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