This is a singularly ugly film, shot with incredible beauty.
Dead Man’s Letters is by far the best known of Konstantin Lopushansky’s films here in the U.S. It is also the least of them – at least of the ones I have seen.
It is neither as harrowing as the absolutely brilliant and indescribable Visitor to a Museum, nor does it have the more developed narrative of Ugly Swans. In a way, this is not a surprise as it was also Lopushansky’s first full-length film.
Lopsushansky, it should be remembered, was the protege of legendary director, Andrei Tarkovsky, best remembered for his long, dreamlike films, his even longer, lingering shots, and his deep Christian themes. He is perhaps the most widely imitated director in history, at least if you count all those arty films playing at the film festivals, which most of us have never heard of.
This is often billed as the first film in Lopushansky’s Apocalypse trilogy, as his first three films are all set in post-apocalyptic settings. However, while Russian Symphony, Visitor to a Museum and Ugly Swans could all be taking place within the same, barely explained watery end of the world scenario, Dead Man’s Letters is set against what is clearly a nuclear war. And perhaps it is this, more topical setting that makes the film seem a lesser effort, as the other films seem somehow more universal.
It is also far darker – relentlessly so -than his later films. Here, we have the last few employees of a museum holed up in a shelter deep beneath it while trying to carry on their past work. However, they are also going a bit crazy. We get glimpses of an appalling government, which may still be carrying on its deadly war – or which may just be lying about that.
And, for all its sensational subject matter, I should note that this is a slow, slow film, full of lots of talk. Lots and lots of talk.
I can’t say I liked this film, but then I’m not sure you’re supposed to. Somehow it avoids the preachiness of most nuclear war films – it certainly offers no hope that we can avoid war if we all just get along. But at the end it reveals that it is a deeply hopeful movie, even when mankind is faced with what looks like utter ruin. Is there anything out there for the children to find? Who knows.
But what matters is that they are still looking.
(For a subtitled version, see here)