Before the End of the World: Strugatsky Brothers on Film at Anthology Film Archivesby Forrest Cardamenis
Russian Sci-fi authors Boris and Arkady Strugatsky owe much of their renown in the United States to Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979). Despite mixed reviews upon release, the film has cemented itself in the world cinema canon, and brought its source material, the brothers’s Roadside Picnic, along with it. Stalker wasn’t the first Strugatsky Brothers novel to become a film, nor is it the most representative: its lack of exposition and deliberate pacing may make for stylistic prototype, but its metaphysical narrative is at odds with the grounded social commentary normally found in the novels. Nevertheless, Stalker was an inspiration to subsequent Russian auteurs and guaranteed the Strugatsky Brothers a prosperous and varied future screen presence.
Stalker's two clearest successors are Alexander Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse (1988), based on a Strugatsky Brothers screenplay that is itself based on their novel, Definitely Maybe; and Dead Man’s Letters (1986), directed by Konstantin Lopushansky, an assistant director on Stalker. Both directors borrow Tarkovsky’s sepia tinting and de-saturated color to depict apocalyptic, abandoned locations. Days of Eclipse only loosely resembles the novel it is based on, but in depicting a claustrophobic, even inexplicable present reflecting a simultaneous anxiety and hope for Perestroika’s new freedoms, one might not even notice. By contrast, Dead Man’s Letters is perhaps the most recognizably “sci-fi” of the films playing at Anthology Film Archives’s new series. Lopushansky's film is set after a computer error causes a nuclear war and it deals with a Nobel Laureate struggling to come to terms with the fact that his field has reduced life to an unknown number of scattered underground bunkers. If the ending is a tad sentimental today, it was surely ironic and shocking to an audience watching it amid the concurrent Chernobyl Disaster.
Grigori Kromanov’s Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel, the second Strugatsky novel to reach the screen (albeit mere months after Stalker), takes a more direct stylistic approach to adaptation. It finds a police detective questioning, quite literally, what “human” means as he investigates a murder in a hotel with only a handful of inhabitants. The Estonian film, made early in the USSR’s transition to a “politics of mass-entertainment” and during a boom of “social sci-fi,” was able to transform the Strugatskys’ general veneration of the Communist future into a more specific, politically expedient call for internationalism. Kromanov changed the setting from a Soviet Ski resort to an unspecified, multilingual location in the Alps, and costumes, décor, and props (note the Cinzano and Marlboro cigarettes) exemplify Estonia’s dissatisfaction with Soviet rule and a kinship with the West. The chiaroscuro lighting and past-tense voiceover betray the Strugatskys’ love of Dashiell Hammett, creating a capricious tone that translates film noir’s post-war anxiety to apprehension about westernization.
Hammett might be an unexpected point of comparison for the sci-fi stalwarts, but the detective plays a role not unlike the Strugatsky outsider forced to reevaluate his beliefs. Hard to Be a God’s Don Rumata, an earthling sent to Arkanar, a similar planet going through its Middle Ages, is perhaps the quintessential example. On the page, or in two different (sometimes unrecognizable) film adaptations, Hard to Be a God never loses its probing inquiry into the nature of humanity. The novel is heavily focalized through Rumata. Perhaps because of the difficulty of mimicking this voice on film, Peter Fleischmann’s 1989-90 adaptation takes liberties with the structure. Fleischmann’s omniscient narration allows for heavy foreshadowing, and he also allows the scientists monitoring activity on Arkanar a much larger role. In doing so, the story of an allegedly advanced civilization monitoring and guiding an allegedly lesser is transformed into a cautionary tale about ego. Released the same year the Soviet-Afghan War ended, it’s a production tinged with subversive, anti-colonial meaning, but that meaning was likely lost on all parties: as previously forbidden international films flooded post-Soviet Russia, Hard to Be a God, once anticipated as the USSR’s first blockbuster, was ignored. The West, meanwhile, took offense to the poor acting, the wanton displays of sex, violence, cheesy special effects and the overbearing prog-rock score, which couldn’t compare to the well-produced Hollywood narratives advocating for humanitarian liberal interventionism.
Alexei German’s recent adaptation was also troubled, taking thirteen years to complete, with his wife and son applying the finishing touches shortly after his death. German pays the sci-fi elements of the story little attention, finding in Rumata a perfect surrogate for his own career frustrations. “The horrifying thought raced through [Rumata’s] mind: I actually hate and despise [Arkanar’s aristocrats],” the Strugatsky Brothers wrote. “I can try as hard as I might, but I now see quite clearly that this is my enemy, hostile to everything I hold dear… I hate his disgusting mouth, all smeared with saliva, the stench of his unwashed body, his blind faith, his antipathy toward anything beyond sexual needs and guzzling beer.”
Seeming to take his cues from this passage, German’s three-hour masterpiece is an incessant, macabre bacchanal filled with some of the filthiest images of human rancor ever put on screen. Figures burst into the frame to moon or belittle the camera; tracking shots nonchalantly depict an array of drunken, emaciated, muddied bodies dragging themselves across the floor to retrieve a fallen coin; hardly a scene goes by without someone spitting on someone or something; limbs are cleaved off and eyes torn out of sockets with shocking casualness. Every bit of disgust Rumata feels for the aristocrats and rulers of Arkanar finds its representative image on screen, and his journey from an apologist for slaughter and historical determinist to a humanist broken by his knowledge is delivered purely through visceral stimulation.
Despite their mutual excesses, Fleischmann’s and German’s Hard to Be a God have little in common, but both illustrate the vast range of interpretations the Strugatsky Brothers allow. It is by now a cliché even to note that it is a cliché to say sci-fi films are about “what it means to be human,” but the Strugatsky Brothers on Film is a reminder of how much we take for granted about the question and, subsequently –and thankfully–that no two answers are alike.
FORREST CARDAMENIS is a film critic and programmer. In addition to The Brooklyn Rail, his work has appeared in the Village Voice, Brooklyn Magazine, and Little White Lies, among others.