Cult Corner: Living in the Twilight of Humanity: Letters from a Dead Man (1986)

"We should acknowledge the fact that the whole history of mankind is a story of a slow suicide committed by a living matter that by sheer accident acquired the ability to think, but that did not know what to do with this fateful capacity."

Nuclear annihilation was a popular topic for media in the '80s with the Cold War looming above everyone's heads. Several incredibly bleak films were made exploring the aftermath of a nuclear attack with two standouts: Threads (1984), the harrowing UK entry into the genre, and The Day After (1983), the United State's slightly more optimistic tale. Letters from a Dead Man (1986) AKA Dead Man's Letters, in the tradition of many other Russian films, is more of a philosophical think-piece than a straightforward entry into the post-apocalyptic genre, though it is no less disturbing than the films that came before it.

Letters from a Dead Man concerns a small group of nuclear holocaust survivors who have holed themselves up the basement of a history museum (ironic since mankind has become nothing more than a blip in history as of the events of the film). The group is lead by Professor Larsen (Rolan Bykov), a former physics Nobel Prize recipient who throughout the film maintains a constant inner monologue in the form of letters he is composing to his missing son. Life is hard and although there are underground bunkers, those in charge of them only allow healthy individuals to access them. It seems obvious that this idea is an analogy to the idea of a government authority not taking care of its weakest citizens which was quite prevalent in the Soviet Union of the '80s.

The first thing that is noticeable about the look of the film is the yellow color tinting applied to everything. It makes the atmosphere feel extremely claustrophobic and monotonous as everything around them is comprised of rubble (and piles of dead rotting bodies). The director, Konstantin Lopushansky, is a protégé of Andrei Tarkovsky and he assisted on Stalker (1979)--you can see some influence from that film on this one. There are fantastic zoom shots, interesting shot compositions, and a dilapidated and dour aesthetic that permeates every second of this film with no relief in sight. The lighting wanes in and out because all electricity is provided by a person using pedals to generate it, everything is damp and cold, it's just an unending parade of suffering and misery. These people are "alive" in the technical sense, but they are not "living". 

It feels as though this film is a documentary of the dying breath of humanity, these characters are resigned to their fates. One man calmly delivers a beautiful monologue before sitting in a grave he dug for himself and shooting himself in the head. Life has become meaningless. The one single ray of hope is Larsen, and his stubbornness to cling to the idea that if people don't give up that there is a chance to continue the species. His analytical mind won't let him stop trying to find an answer for all of this death, he posits multiples theories and solutions. Perhaps all of them are fruitless, but it's something. The latter half of the film depicts him taking over the care of a group of abandoned children and instilling in them a tiny seed of inspiration. Their fate is left ambiguous but that is intentional as the fate of the real world at the time was ambiguous as well. Letters from a Dead Man is both a warning and a plea for peace and communication.

--Michelle Kisner