Pisma myortvogo cheloveka (1986) Poster

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Quintessential Post-Apocalyptic Fable.
Coventry16 March 2009
This "Letters from a Dead Man" simply has got to be, hands down, one of the top three most depressing and pessimistic movies I ever encountered in my life. Of all Sci-Fi films dealing with remnants of life after the apocalypse – and believe me they are quite numerous – this Soviet Union produced sleeper upraises the most nightmarishly realistic and harrowing atmosphere ever. Even in your worst imaginable nightmares and premonitions, the post-nuclear existence probably still doesn't look as decayed and melancholic as illustrated here in this film. Survivors are forced to live underground, in the caves and catacombs of destroyed buildings, and have little else to do but watch each other fading away emotionally as well as physically. They can't go the surface without wearing special outfits and gas masks, but even then there's nothing else to do but stroll around between ruins, car wrecks and rotting corpses. With monotonous photography and the exclusive use of a yellow-tinted picture, director Konstantin Lopushansky (an acolyte of the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky) fabricates the ideally lugubrious ambiance, and he can also rely on the devoted cast and bleakly void screenplay to assist.

The story revolves on Rolan Bykov as a scientist – former Nobel Price winner, even – who entrenched himself underneath the remnants of a library building along with his wife and a handful of co-workers. The titular letters are addressed to his son whom the scientist hasn't seen or heard from since the catastrophe. The letters and above all the hope his son is still alive somewhere is what keeps the poor man going, but how long can you hold on to hope when you see everything and everyone around you dying? "Letters from a Dead Man" is a difficult but ultimately very rewarding cinematic experience to endure. Difficult, of course, because of the emotionally devastating imagery and atmosphere, and because there's actually very little substantial content. We literally stare at a handful of people languishing and eventually dying, with only a small hint at hope near the end. And rewarding because of the depiction of genuine humane sentiments and the thought-provoking messages. It's also highly remarkable how "Letters from a Dead Man" remains continuously vague regarding the cause of the apocalypse and eventually even searches the guilt in the own heart. In a time where movies released on the other side of the Iron Curtain (in Europe and particularly the USA) routinely blamed Russia for the potentially upcoming apocalypse, this tale suggests the root cause of the catastrophe lies in a human error during the launch of a space shuttle. The entire cast gives away tremendous performances. I don't know if these people are veteran actors and actresses in their home countries, but their grimaces and catatonic behavior suggest that they were selected especially for this type of discouraging parable. Fantastic film; though obviously not fit for all occasions and/or audiences.
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Requires an effort to watch....but you will never regret it.
Catherine Bragina20 January 2006
This is quite an obscure picture, even by Russian standards... It is dark (literally), morbid, disturbing at times... It requires quite an effort to watch. But it is one of those quite numerous Russian films that leave a deepest impression on the viewers by making them THINK. It is one of those brilliant "what if.." ponderings, never really giving you a final answer, or even if suggesting anything, leaving it open for the viewers to make their own conclusions. Perfectly cast (faces DO match the setting!), perfectly performed, and even the "special effects" - something Russian film-makers never have money or enthusiasm for - look quite convincing for their time. It IS hard to watch, and one probably has to be in a certain mood to watch it (I'd recommend watching it alone), but it is worthwhile experience and you will never regret it.
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Possibly the best post-apocalyptic movie ever
Raúl Quintanilla Alvarado26 September 2001
It took me some time to remember the title of this film, and it's certainly a hidden gem. In it's very slow pace, it transfers the mood of what will probably be if we went through a nuclear war. Great cinematography, and the quality of the film just makes it more profound and hipnotizing.

If you find this film, take your time any rainy day, and drift away in a world of dead and dying.
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Very Soviet and very shocking
Tamas Polgar4 August 2014
To fully understand this movie you should understand the mindset and milieu of the Eastern Bloc - preferably the Soviet Union - of the 1980s, in the height of the Cold War. This movie is radically different from Western post-apocalyptic movies like 'The Day After' or 'Threads' which deal with the very materialistic side of a nuclear holocaust, like the effects of bombs and life after the war. This Soviet movie is not a spectacle and its aim is far from simply entertaining or scaring. It ponders on the philosophic and moral side of a nuclear war, a suicide of mankind and whether it's inevitable or not.

There is barely any storyline. The main character is an unnamed scientist who lives in a makeshift shelter under a museum, among saved relics from all eras of history and some of his surviving colleagues. Being all scientists they are trying to grapple the whole point of what happened. There are no names, except for the wife and son of this scientist: Anna and Eric. Eric is presumably dead as he was outside when the bombs exploded. Nevertheless the scientist keeps writing letters to him, in a form of a diary, which is more to save his last thoughts of the world than actually meant to be delivered someday.

The pace of this film is just as slow and time would be in such a situation. Soviet art movies were not bound by economic constraints so it did not matter to their makers whether the tickets will sell well or not. Modern moviegoers would find the entire thing profoundly boring, and even the most dedicated movie hipster would look at the clock time to time. Being this slow is part of the image the movie builds. Just like the characters, the viewer is also immersed in an endless waiting, never to know whether something is going to change or happen. You actually have to watch it to the very end to see. Don't expect rich experiences. In such a dull and dead world it's a rare gift to see anything happen.

Interestingly, the makers took great care to emphasize that this is not happening in the Soviet Union. Or more exactly, it could happen, but this particular place is not a Soviet city. There is not a single object in the background with Cyrillic letters on it, but there are a lot of things with English labels, some are even consumer goods rare behind the Iron Curtain at that time. German beer cans float in the water - canned beer was a curiosity that time - and a bottle of Jagermeister is seen on a desk. Canned foods are also foreign, with English labels. Even the soldiers carry weapons that look like a crossbreed of American M-16 and M-1 rifles. It's a small detail, but back then every able-bodied Soviet men were familiar with Soviet military equipment, having spent years as a conscript, and this clue is giving away that the scene takes place in a foreign country. Even the military vehicles were selected to keep this illusion. The helicopter is a Ka-26 which was never used by the military (in the Soviet Union at least), the large truck is a MAZ missile trailer, but there was also a civilian version of it. The then- futuristic hovercraft that appears for no apparent reason was an experimental vehicle at the time, but such vehicles were already operating as ferries on the English Channel, and were praised as a great technical advancement of the time.

I'd generally recommend this movie for those who are desperate enough to take a plunge into a strange, lost civilization's vision of the violent end of the world. Not a date movie, except if your date is a hardcore movie culture fanatic or grew up in the Soviet Union.
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Haunting, undeservedly underrated masterpiece
Mafiosi_turnip23 March 2007
The story takes place in an eastern European country(no reference is made to what country) after a nuclear war. A military regime has been imposed, there is no reference weather this is a local regime or an occupation. The soldiers tend to carry western weapons like AR pattern rifles and HK G3. The main character lives with coworkers under the university buildings where they once worked , all characters have a type of confession to tell relating to the catastrophe. Decay is everywhere but there is also irony in the decay and destruction, such as the scene in the library that is half covered in water with pages upon pages floating on this evil soup of corpses and texts that the main character ,as a true scholar, goes to a semi submerged desk to study a book. Just like "Threads" this is the only other movie that truly shows how final a nuclear apocalypse would be.
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This film must be seen by everyone!
bakadeika14 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
The movie is about fatal for the Mankind consequences of the nuclear war. It is not said explicitly, in which country the plot is set. But from some details you can easily derive, that it was in the USA, for example - the main character says: "...from Niels Bohr to our President..." (Soviet leaders were never called "presidents" in the Soviet Union in 1986). Meanwhile, the reason of the war is stated as accidental and no one seems to be guilty of it: as the main character remembers, an operator of the central control panel desperately cried, that there was a computer mistake and rocket launches should be canceled, but he was late by 7 seconds, because he choked by the coffee and could not shout immediately.

The main character is a Nobel Prize laureate in Physics, who feels very confused that his science, either accidentally or not, led the Mankind to such a horror. There are also some other hopeless adults, all they are deeply shocked and desired. The main character try to give a little hope for a small group of children (all of them are shocked and never speak), and writes kind letters to his friend Eric (although there is no hope, that they will be read by someone). All people sit in a dark cellar under a (former) museum of history, some of them sometimes go out in gas-masks and special costumes to exchange canned meal for anesthetics. A strict police regime, the main policy of which being to try to save lives only for few healthy people, leaving ill ones alone and without any help, is established in the destroyed and burnt city. But even this "save lives" means "to hide themselves deeply under the surface of the Earth for more than 30 years". There is no any news, which could provide a hope, that in other parts of the Earth the situation is better.

Although quite a few special effects were used, there are some scenes in the film, which are horrible up to such a degree, that I was not calm enough to look at them. In the end of the film I even weeped a bit. I think, that this film should be seen by each human on the Earth. THIS should never be forgotten...
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Earth's dying breath
This is a post-apocalyptic movie where a group of Russian intellectuals, living in the airtight vaults of a museum, cling on in the twilight, going slowly mad according to their own pompous wonts.

The movie is unremitting in its depressing depiction of a dead world. I was stuck between turning it off because it was almost sacrilegiously depressing, and remaining because of the sheer cataclysmic beauty. The images are mostly tinted yellow, although some shots are in tints of blue. There is no way this experience is going to allow you the respite of polychromatic images.

There is a body of work that deals with the end of humankind in cinema, but any example I can think of seems completely notional in conception, this one actually felt like a recording of the end of days, as unflinchingly profane as a documentary of viaticums.

I think it's also a tombstone for communism in Russia, suggested as a blind alley, and advocates a return to pre-revolutionary values regarding family and religion. But only in an intensely personal way, as if recounting the death of a close family member. It is more than a warning against nuclear war. In its parodying of ridiculous, pontificating, and obstructive authority, it's an emesis of authoritarian communism, a whole-hearted, wholesale rejection.

As an endnote, there's a dolly-out in the first few minutes of the film that left my jaw on the floor, practically the best shot I've ever seen in cinema, my congratulations to Konstantin Lopushansky and his team.
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Depressive post-apocalyptic film that expresses hope
jennyhor200429 August 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Depressive in tone but with a hopeful optimism at its end, this film explores how human beings might survive the immediate aftermath of a nuclear bomb explosion that wipes out entire cities and all life above ground and renders the physical environment sterile and toxic. In such a setting people live without hope and watch one another disintegrate emotionally and mentally as well as physically. The bare and patchy plot centres around a physicist huddled with a few other survivors in a bunker beneath a museum after such a wipe-out. The physicist tends to his wife, dying from radiation sickness, and composes letters to their young son who was separated from them during the explosion and the chaos that followed, and is now missing. One day while searching for the boy and other survivors, the physicist meets a group of orphaned children, all traumatised by the explosion, and arranges for them all to go to a so-called Central Bunker where they might be cared for by government doctors. Martial law and a strict curfew have been imposed across the country and the physicist risks his life to get medicine for his wife; while he's gone, the wife dies. The remaining survivors in the museum bunker ponder their circumstances and try to cope with various rationalisation strategies. Eventually they're all ordered to go to the Central Bunker but the physicist elects to remain and moreover takes in the orphans when the Central Bunker rejects them for being sick.

The plot depends heavily on the actors and their environment to convey its message and ideas. The actors have worn, sometimes craggy faces which portray hope, despair, anger and resignation in turns. The interior settings are dark and look cramped with primitive living conditions; exterior settings are dominated by roaring winds, the wreckage of buildings, cars and machines, puddles of toxic water and undecayed bodies. An air of oppression reinforced by helicopter and tank patrols and periodic megaphone announcements adds to the overall feeling of despair and hopelessness. Use of sepia tones in the filmstock emphasises the desolation and wretchedness of life and accentuates the strains of care and surviving on the actors' faces. Viewers see the details of soil texture, of water that looks like mercury and, in a flooded university library, of the wet pulp of paper and sodden towers of books. One scene in the film appears in shades of blue that highlight the secret and possibly illegal or dangerous work being done by two characters.

The cinematography captures perfectly the small scale of human life in an extraordinary and extreme environment. It reaches its peak of morose and pessimistic expression in a Christmas scene in which the physicist and his orphans build a Christmas tree out of wire and industrial scrap and light candles on the tree. The camera draws back to show the scene in full: stark in its loneliness but beautiful all the same. It's like a small beacon of light in a never-ending black night. Viewers sense that the plot has reached its lowest point and from here on, hope may arise; it harks back to the pagan origin of Christmas as a mid-winter festival in which people celebrated the death of the old year and the birth of the new year. What happens to the physicist and the children next underlines this passing-of-the-torch motif.

There are other moments of great beauty in the film: the nuclear disaster itself with its montage of cities on fire and being blown down by huge winds, over which a soprano sings and a child babbles in the background, is a memorable sight; and the orphaned children venturing out into the barren landscape and over the horizon beneath an overcast sky through which thin rays of sun shine is a very beautiful and moving scene. Even the sepia tones themselves lend a kind of golden aura over the actors and the sets as they bring out the harshness and desolation of the lives the characters lead.

A few survivors declaim on the purpose and nature of humanity on Earth and where and how humanity went wrong somewhere so that the nuclear calamity was made possible. People were ambitious and greedy, they reached out and made things they didn't fully understand, they tried to know too much but lacked the wisdom and insight to control their knowledge and what they did with it … the physicist himself realises the calamity occurred accidentally in a way that's no-one's fault. Here is a message about the absurdity and fragility of existence and how one seemingly trivial yet universal event can set off a chain reaction that results in a nation-wide if not global tragedy. One survivor expounds his view that a new dog-eat-dog world without compassion will be built on the remains of the old one. Another survivor praises the achievements of the human species and then commits suicide. At one point in the film, the physicist expresses guilt that his work might have contributed to the nuclear disaster.

In the end, hope is all the physicist has to sustain him: hope that his son is still alive, hope that his wife might survive long enough to see their son, hope that the orphaned children will also survive and help create a new world with new values that won't end in nuclear catastrophe. The children carry his hope as they trudge away from the museum bunker.

This is a thoughtful film with scenes of great beauty and sadness.
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