by Anuk Bavkist
Survivors take refuge in a museum cellar-turned-underground bunker. Lit by flickering light bulbs, they resemble the waking dead. Their daily routine finds them manually pedaling to generate electricity, digging their own graves and philosophizing the end of times. The surface above them is nothing more than an industrial wasteland littered with decomposing bodies and architectural ruins. Other survivors, equipped with heavy hazmat suits to shield themselves from an endless nuclear winter, still navigate the remains of their former city while an authoritative presence keeps watch in the form of patrolling helicopters and military raids. What caused the nuclear holocaust that left their existence in such disarray is never made clear, but is theorized to be the result of a computer error that launched a war missile (possibly an alternate future where Stanislav Petrov had actually responded to Oko’s false alarm in 1983). Our guide through this post apocalyptic nightmare is a grizzled old man referred only as “The Professor.” He spends much of his days caring for his sickly wife while going through the daily minutiae with the rest of the survivors under the museum. A Nobel Prize laureate and man of science who’s only real defense mechanism to the harsh reality in front him is mentally writing letters to his dead son, Erik.
Directed by arguably the most Tarkovskian of Tarkovsky’s disciples, Konstantin Lopushansky’s aesthetics traces back to his experiences an assistant director of his mentor’s own science fiction production, Stalker. This is evident from the film’s opening sequence: A meticulously choreographed long take that has the the camera slowly lingers from a close-up shot of an exposed light bulb to a wide shot revealing the Professor watching over his bed stricken wife, before closing the take on medium shot as the camera follows the Professor to a desk where he begins his first letter to his son. While Lopushansky understands of his mentor’s cinema is masterfully on display, it would be hard to mistaken Letters from a Dead Man for a Tarkvosky film. Lopushansky’s anti-utopian future, filmed almost entirely through a yellow filter to create a look suggesting a world forever on fire, is starker than anything Tarkovsky has ever captured on celluloid. Released 5 months after the horrific events in Chernobyl, Letters from a Dead Man offered a direct response to what his mentor seemed to have prophesized seven earlier.