Notes from Underground: Dead Man's Letters 

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Dead Man's Letters (1986)
Directed by Konstantin Lopushansky
Saturday, January 26, at Spectacle, part of its Eastern Bloc Apocalypse series

The Cold War bred paranoia, and its most potent strain wasn't a fear of the bomb—it was the horror of not knowing. The terrifying unknown subsumed Mutually Assured Destruction, the potential spies running the embassy, all the nefarious hijinks They were up to Over There. Ain’t it heartwarming? We were united in terror the whole time. Both sides also envisioned worst-case scenarios: Russian director Konstantin Lopushansky’s Dead Man’s Letters opens on a devastated, sepia-toned post-apocalyptic landscape. Responsible for the fallout is simple human error—a cup of hot coffee and a seven-second delay. Slapstick, but the kind you cry over. Above ground is chaos, a black market in painkillers, sickness and death; below, a bunker where only healthy families are admitted. And beneath a museum where his wife once worked and now lays dying, a Nobel laureate physicist sits writing letters to Eric, his missing son.

Eric is almost certainly dead, but the good scientist (Soviet star Rolan Bykov) isn’t the kookiest of the survivors: his wife’s remaining colleagues debate and lament the downfall of mankind, some humanists to the last, some borrowing from Nietzsche, one claiming that exposure toughens the constitution and going about topless. The physicist himself blames science, but in Letters' cosmology, he’s the only one enlightened enough to have hope, to refuse descent into the absolutely authoritarian system below, committing himself to a quixotic good deed in a world where "good" lacks meaning. Letters is steeped in end-of-empire gloom, so perhaps now, screening in New York, it’ll be even more intelligible.

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