Dead Man’s Letters is a 1986 apocalyptic film by a Soviet director Konstantin Lopushanskiy. The story depicts events of a war that has recently become nuclear. The story is a cautionary tale, and its historical context is especially important. It also utilizes a variety of film techniques to create a highly emotionally powerful and realistic portrayal of the worst outcome of the Cold War. This paper will examine the work from a historical and theoretical perspective, as well as the movement that it belongs to.
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Summary of the Film
The film is told from a perspective of an old physicist that writes letters to his presumably dead son Eric. He lives in the basement shelter of a history museum. Before the war, he received a Nobel Prize, but after the war began, he started to slowly lose his mind. He wants to devise an equation that would explain the events that just happened, but since he is not able to do so, he believes none of the events are possible. In the shelter live a group of museum workers and his wife who is sick. He tries to find enough medication to ease her pain, but she dies during one of his journeys to the black market.
She is buried in the floor of the shelter by the other inhabitants. Meanwhile, government forces are preparing an evacuation into the central bunker. Since its space is limited, only those who are healthy may enter. One day, the old man visits a nearby church and sees that the children who lived there with the priest were not allowed to evacuate due to their PTSD. After all the other inhabitants of the museum shelter are gone, he decides to help the children and invites them to live there. He teaches them about the world and serves as a father figure for his remaining months of life. After his death, the children choose to perform an exodus, akin to the story of the bible.
Film From the Historical Perspective
In 1984, Doomsday Clock, which was created by the Science and Security Board of the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” to determine how close the world is to the nuclear war, showed three minutes to midnight, one of the closest positions since the clock’s invention in 1947. The tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were escalating due to a variety of factors. The Soviet-Afghan War became extremely heated, with the Afghan side being supplied by the United States. American ballistic and cruise missiles were deployed in Western Europe. Ronald Reagan promised to intensify the arms race as a way of winning the Cold War, or even an open exchange of nuclear missiles. The fear of nuclear war was not felt with such intensity since the 1950s, and the public around the world was becoming increasingly aware of the danger that nuclear weapons may bring.
Despite that, the tensions only continued to rise, and it can be seen in the films that the era produced. Over a short period in the early 1980s, three prominent cautionary films were released. In 1983, Nicholas Meyer directed a TV movie for ABC that followed the residents of Kansas during a developing conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The film was one of the most viewed in the history of television and had a powerful effect on Ronal Reagan who was given an advanced screening of the movie. In his memoirs, he stated that the film was one of the reasons behind the later de-escalation of the nuclear conflict through the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (Harvey, 2014). In 1984, Mick Jackson released a highly realistic television drama for BBC that depicted the consequences of the nuclear war from the perspective of its survivors. In 1986, the topic of nuclear war was touched upon by Konstantin Lopushanskiy in Dead Man’s Letters.
The movie examines a lot of different consequences of nuclear war. The main character tells the story of how it happened. During a lunch break, one of the missile operators was unable to cancel an accidental launch because coffee spilled on his console. After understanding what happened, he promptly goes to the bathroom to hang himself. While the event may seem to be completely fictional due to the drama, it carries, in fact, it is based on a real incident that occurred in 1983. A false alarm of the Soviet nuclear early-warning system recorded the launch of multiple Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles from bases in the United States. Such a report would require a full retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States, but due to the actions by Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, the data was confirmed as false, and no strike followed (Miller, 2015). Dead Man’s Letters shows how one person who could have stopped the war failed. It can be seen as a commentary on how people should not have control of such power because they are prone to make mistakes, even in positions that require extreme responsibility. The incident was not widely known until the 1990s, but it is possible that Lopushanskiy was aware of such a possibility.
The movie also touches upon the different perspectives on the war that people had at the time. While nobody defends the war, there are two distinct viewpoints that reflect the philosophy of the era. One of the inhabitants spends almost all of his time dictating a book about how people are completely responsible for what happened and therefore are a terrible, self-destructive species that deserves everything that happened to it. On the other hand, there is a single man who prepares a speech about the beauty of humanity and how despite what happened, it still had love, compassion, art, and therefore they deserve to be remembered. However, immediately after he gives the speech, he goes to the grave he prepared in the shelter and shoots himself. The conflicting feelings of the survivors allow the viewer to see how people perceived the possibility of open conflict.
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Coincidentally, the movie’s release was close to the Chernobyl accident, which sparked a new concern about radioactivity and radioactive fallout. Atomic energy was still viewed as a mostly safe and clean source of electricity, as well as a source of materials needed for nuclear weapons. This made the movie especially resonate at the time of release, as the effects of radiation became a real danger once more.
Theoretical Perspective On The Movie
From a theoretical standpoint, the film belongs to the realist movement, despite its use of heavily tinted footage. The film devotes a lot of attention to its world, which moves without the actions of the main character. Every person he encounters has a distinct personality, goals, and it is possible to tell what happened to them by the end of the film. The dialogue is natural and some of it was improvised to create believable chemistry and tone between the actors. Throughout the movie, scientifically accurate effects of nuclear winter can be seen. They range from skies black with ash to high winds and temperature becomes lower.
Also, Lopushanskiy used real ruins and debris during filming. This creates a starkly realistic portrayal of life after the nuclear war from the perspective of an old scientist who is losing his mind. Only two scenes are done in a classic montage style. The first uses archive footage from different bombings and test sites intercut with a whisper of a prayer from a young woman. The scene shows the complete terror of a nuclear attack, while the talented use of editing creates an impression of real footage. The second scene takes place in a hospital after the attack. The main character begs the surgeon to let him into the child ward to find his son. After a small argument, he enters, and the director uses archive footage of emergency workers performing operations on patients’ intercut with children’s screams. The scene effectively conveys the feelings of sadness and misery that the main character feels as he sees hundreds of children suffering from burns, broken bones, and other injuries.
Lopushanskiy was a friend of Andrei Tarkovsky and always admired his dedication to realism, even when working with science fiction. The realism movement grew and changed over the decades in the Soviet Union (Nelmes, 2012), with Tarkovsky being one of the leading voices at the time (Riley, 2017). Science fiction in the Soviet Union was often seen as childish, and only a few adult-oriented science fiction films were released until Tarkovsky’s work on Stalker and Solaris showed the potential of telling complex stories set in the future (Nelmes, 2012). The introduction of science fiction into the realism movement allowed many other directors across the Soviet Union to start experimenting with more fantastical stories. One of them was Lopushanskiy, as his next feature film was a post-apocalyptic tale of a person visiting an underwater museum where the last remains of the world are stored. While Lopushanskiy worked with him, he does not replicate the style of Stalker, Solaris, Nostalgia, or any other Tarkovsky film. His aesthetics are much darker, with an almost monochrome color scheme. Nevertheless, they are realistic, with strict laws of logic and natural behavior. Even during the rare scenes that utilize special effects, the director avoids bringing attention to them, to preserve the feeling of reality.
Dead Man’s Letters is one of the more famous films by Konstantin Lopushanskiy. The cautionary tale is often directly tied to the historical events that surrounded it, and in one case directly addressed a real incident that remained secret for 15 years after the movie’s release. The film deals with a near-future scenario, and yet its characters, setting, and film techniques never break the illusion of realism that the author carefully crafted. The dedication to realism can be seen as a result of the deep appreciation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s work, and yet the author creates a unique style, that does not copy the aesthetics of the films that inspired the author. It may not be the most famous cautionary film about nuclear war, but its attention to detail and extremely heavy atmosphere make it perhaps the most emotionally affecting one from the era.
Harvey, K. (2014). American anti-nuclear activism, 1975-1990: The challenge of peace. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Miller, D. (2015). The Cold War: A military history. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.
Nelmes, J. (Ed.). (2012). Introduction to film studies (5th ed). New York, NY: Routledge.
Riley, J. A. (2017). Hauntology, ruins, and the failure of the future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Journal of Film and Video, 69(1), 18–26.