Tainstvennaya stena [The Mysterious Wall] (1967)

This is one of those Soviet era SF films I’d never heard of before I actually watched it.

That might not say much for the average SF film fan, but it is rarer than it might sound as I’ve spent a lot of time exploring SF from behind the Iron Curtain.  I’m aware of the fact that there are more films out there than I’ve seen or read about, but don’t come across them very often.

I have found very little information on this film.  BFI lists “We Are Martians” as an alternative title.  While it fits some of the dialogue later in the film, no one else lists it under this title.

In the few sources I’ve seen, it’s generally compared with Tarkovsky’s Stalker – and it is interesting to note that the star of that film, Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, makes his film debut here!  As it predates the original Strugatsky brothers story that was the basis for that film, some have even suggested that this film might have inspired “Roadside Picnic.”  I seriously doubt that as the underlying plot is actually far closer to Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris.  So much so that its makers would probably have been sued by Lem if it had been made in the U.S.

A mysterious “wall” – like a huge electrical disturbance similar to ball lightning – keeps appearing in a remote area.  Those who are trapped inside it when it appears have reported having strange visions, and often feel drawn towards the wall although contact with it would probably be fatal.  It is apparently an alien attempt to contact us, although few of those who haven’t experienced it are willing to admit it – and science seems incapable of explaining it.

I suspect this might have been a television production as the opening sequences of the film are so obviously studio bound and apparently shot within a very tight space.  Once it gets to the area inside the “wall”, which was mostly shot on location, it feels far more spacious, but even then rarely strays too far (although most of the visions were also shot on location – and one actually involves a ship and a man sailing a bathtub that would have required a fairly expensive shoot).

It is also one of the talkiest Soviet SF films I’ve ever seen – which is saying a lot because most Soviet SF is decidedly talky.  It is highly intelligent, and plays around with some interesting ideas, but is mostly static, with a lot of time spent on the characters speculating about what is happening and how they might respond to it.

One detail that amuses me for what it reveals about the times that produced this film shows up in the Planetarium sequence, where we get a plug for atheism with references to the weird occultist Giordano Bruno and a highly exaggerated version of the Galileo case.  It seems out of place in a film about trying to contact an alien intelligence which might be very, very different from us.

It’s almost as if they already had some inkling of the Religious interpretation Tarkovsky would give Solaris.  

One suspects it’s there as a proof of their Communist orthodoxy.  The suggestion that Science might not be able to understand something – even temporarily! – would naturally be a shocking heresy to the official Soviet mindset.  One notes, in Soviet films like Orion’s Loop and Moon Rainbow that present similarly inexplicable events, that they always have to have some disclaimer, usually a suggestion that science will someday understand what is happening.  

On the whole, most casual viewers should avoid this one as it is rather dry and static.  The ideas are interesting, particularly for those looking for intelligent SF, but it offers little in the way of visuals and avoids answering any of the questions it asks.  Nor are the visions particularly inventive or interesting as they are supposed to be based on things that happened in the characters’ pasts.  It might be worth a look for those of us interested in Soviet era SF, but more for historical reasons than otherwise.

A TO Z REVIEWS

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