Pisma Myortvogo Cheloveka (Letters from a Dead Man, 1986)
Konstantin Lopushansky re-creates the post-apocalyptic terror of a nuclear disaster on Chernobyl’s aftermath as a Stalker’s flip-side.
Undoubtedly the work of Andrei Tarkovsky has already influenced aesthetically and technically many filmmakers. One of the directors that have affected the most by him is definitely Konstantin Lopushansky. With films that are characterized by an extreme look of the everyday life and a different approach to the science fiction genre, Lopushansky has become a cult figure of the Russian cinema. His first serious engagement with cinema was as production assistant of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Seven years later and after his short film Solo (1980), Lopushansky directs his first feature film Pisma Myortvogo Cheloveka / Письма Мёртвого Человека (Letters from a Dead Man, 1986). The film won the Grand Prize of the 25th Mannheim-Heidelberg Filmfestival.
The story takes place in an anonymous city after the end of a nuclear war that wiped out everything. The war started when an operator fired a missile by accident and then the chain reactions of the other countries led to this holocaust. The survivors of that anonymous region are living in various shelters and the majority of them stay in one that is located under the library of a museum. The winter is permanent due to the increased levels of radioactivity in the environment. For that reason the military police is checking everyone so those who are infected by radiation will not be in contact with the others. The lead character is The Professor (Rolan Bykov) who is a Nobel laureate in Physics and also the only one who survived from his family. He is always trying to help his fellow people and particularly some children that they were found infected. In order to remain in a better psychological state, he is mentally sending letters to his son Erick where he describes his everyday life despite the fact that he is already dead.
Letters from a Dead Man could perhaps be one of the most pessimistic films that have ever dealt with the fear of a nuclear catastrophe. Of course this is not a coincidence since the film was shot and released only a couple of months after the Chernobyl disaster. Thus a parabolic story about the end of the world and of the human civilization was particularly up to date during that period. Since the actual fear was extremely high, the film doesn’t leave any glimpses of hope for a chance of survival or even recovery after such an event. Any kind of progress or evolution will stop and everything will go backwards. The human civilization should return to the caves – underground shelters – and there should wait stoically the expected end to come.
There will be no heroes that could save the day; there will be no upheaval that could change the future because everything is already dead. This is a rather austere record of the failure of the humankind without any embellishments. Lopushansky dreadfully visualizes our worst nightmares. His approach could seem excessive now but this could substantially considered as a bleak realism after the disaster. There is only one point where the director leaves some space to a slight almost sicken hope to exist and this is the group of children that might bring some changes in the future. At the same time Lopushansky abandons any kind of religious interpretations of his work as the children leave a priest’s shelter in order to go to the scientist Professor.
With his debut film, Lopushansky tried to go one step further from where Tarkovsky stopped with his Stalker. Definitely Letters from a Dead Man is not a sequel, but the two films have some pretty obvious common grounds. Thematically, Letters from a Dead Man is a pure post-apocalyptic film which in a theoretical degree is also characterized as science fiction too. Lopushansky’s homage to his master doesn’t just stop on the genre similarities since he co-wrote the screenplay with two masters of Soviet science fiction, Boris Strugatsky and Vyacheslav Rybakov. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were extremely influential authors of science fiction and they also wrote the novel Piknik na Obochine (Roadside Picnic) on which Stalker was based. So inevitably this film will bring some acquainted memories to the connoisseurs of their style. The main aesthetic difference between the two films is, as it was already mentioned, that Lopushansky is handling and directing his subject with much greater level of skeptical pessimism compared to Tarkovsky.
His shots are strictly claustrophobic to the level that his characters can barely breathe. His dirty images are almost denuded from colors and sensations and they are just carrying a hauntingly depressing gloominess. Nikolai Pokoptsev’s cinematography pushes the picture even further since his grainy rough black and white photography is overexposed through a variety of intense yellow colored filters that create an eerie almost macabre feeling. Everything is dying and everyone is going through a phase of decomposition, even the fresh radioactive snow. Lopushansky doesn’t use poetry to express himself; he is grim, nihilist perhaps even irritatingly cynical. This is probably based on the fact that his ideas come from real concern for his own existence and now he doesn’t work just as a creatively repressed artist.
It is rather obvious that Letters from a Dead Man could be addressed to a strictly limited audience. This is not because it is hard for someone to understand or accept the messages that the film is commuting. It is the vibe that may prevent the viewer to feel immediately connected to. This is a film that would be hard to become likeable to an audience that is unprepared for something so intense. So, if the viewer could immediately leave behind all these misgivings and let himself submerge into this post-apocalyptic terror that Konstantin Lopushansky created then he might feel scared when he will realize that he also shares quite similar existential questionings.