Radioactive philosophers' heads and strewn corpses.

I love to see the world suffer in agony after and during a nuclear holocaust.

As I grew up in the eighties we all knew that this was the way we were going to die. Either ripped to dust by the explosion or of radiation sickness in the aftermath.

And it didn't happen. For some unknown reason. I was bereft of my awaiting destiny, and I guess I seek to emulate it by wallowing in fantasies about how it would have been. And I'm not talking about cosy apocalypse shit (though I also find that stuff to be thoroughly enjoyable), rather I mean the truly horrendous and bleak realism of Threads, the Day After and the film this blog is about: Dead Man's Letters.

Dead Man's Letters is a Soviet film from 1986, and describes the aftermath of a nuclear exchange. The story is set in an unknown city in an unknown western country and revolves around a nobel prize winning physicist and a few other survivors. While some interpret this film as set in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe there are several hints in the film that this is in fact not the case. The soldiers all use western style uniforms and weapons, and we also see that these soldiers are present before the nuclear war, so it's not a matter of occupation. Also, all signs have latin rather than cyrillic letters and a great deal of western consumer goods are shown throughout the film. At one point a reference is even made to the leader of the nation being a president, which was never the case in the Soviet Union. A side note perhaps, but an important side note: Soviet censorship at the time would probably never allow a film to show the downfall of the Soviet Union - and as such great care had to be taken to show that this was the fate of a western country. Incidentally it is also a much better film than the more well known but also somewhat overrated Soviet sci fi films by Tarkovsky. (Stalker and Solaryis.)

Regardless, the main characters hide in a fallout shelter below what is either a university or a museum. They're all intellectuals of some sort, and they make their home among artifacts of former civilizations. Greek and Roman statuary adorning their sepulchre, where they dine, discuss and die. Sometimes all three at once. A particularly bleak sequence has one of them soliloquy at great length during a meal, before he calmly crawls into a freshly dug grave and shoots himself. None of the others try to stop him. Unfortunately I don't understand Russian, and I have not been able to find a subtitled (nor God forbid, dubbed) version of this film, so I have no idea what he was rambling about. Probably something very smart.

There are many such poignant scenes, and the mise en scene during the outdoor sequences are incredibly evocative and atmospheric. Filmed in low contrasting (mostly) monochrome with an array of colored filters and varying degree of over exposed film the images compliment the landscapes perfectly. One of the scenes has two characters wading through the remnants of a partially flooded library. The nihilism is appearant. There are also some details I don't quite understand. Probably because of my inability to understand Russian language or culture. Such as the fact that one of the women in the shelter wanders about with her tits hanging out during most of her appearances or the inclusion of a gambling dwarf.

The physicist whose point of view we follow is filled with remorse and despair as he wanders around in the ruins, and we learn that he was either directly or indirectly involved in creating the very weapons that destroyed the world. As such he represents the duality of humanity's destructive and analytical capabilities. He feels very much the weight of responsibility, both in terms of what has transpired and perhaps what needs to be done.

As the characters die off one by one our hero decides that children are indeed the future, and sets out to lead a bunch of starving and irradiated kids to "the Central Bunker", where they will supposedly be saved. In a way he fails as we see that he is buried by the very children he wished to save, but the film ends in an optimistic note. The children continue to walk (ever upwards in the frame) through the blasted and barren onset of nuclear winter - presumably towards the Central Bunker.

Interestingly the burial in itself presents a strangely optimistic image in itself. While the intellectuals of the bunker took time to bury their dead most of the corpses in the film simply float about in puddles or lie rotting in the debris. These children obviously represent hope that civilization is not all gone. However, the fact that the physicist and all the adult characters pass away and leave the children to fend for themselves also suggests that the world of tomorrow will be a better one, because old values have died out.

While the film emphasizes existential anguish more than the material destruction and realistic simulations of Threads the two films should be seen as something of a natural pair. At least these are my absolute favorites of the genre, and the continue to remind me how lucky we were never to be able to discuss just how realistic they truly are.

So far.

Watch the film here: https://youtu.be/6HEZaUT2bu8

No comments: