From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey through Russian Fantastik Cinema

By Adam Lowenstein (Pittsburgh)


When Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) landed in the US during its 2006 theatrical release, many American viewers were doubtlessly intrigued by the sheer unlikelihood of its existence. Could a film that reviewers were comparing to such epic Hollywood fantasy and science fiction spectacles as The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003) series or The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999) and its sequels (2003) really have come from Russia, a country hardly known for its investment in fantastic cinema? “From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema” is an ambitious film series that seeks to dispel that sort of impression. The curators―Alla Verlotsky, Robert Skotak, and Dennis Bartok―who presented this group of sixteen films through the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York from 11 through 24 August 2006, set out not only to provide aesthetic and historical genealogies for a phenomenon like Night Watch, but to demonstrate how rich and varied Russian approaches to “fantastik” cinema have been from the silent era to the present. The refreshingly broad range of films gathered under the “fantastik” umbrella is the strongest suit of this important series; despite the predictable (but still welcome) inclusion of more familiar fare such as Andrei Tarkovskii’s science fiction milestones Solaris (Soliaris, 1972) and Stalker (1979), and of course, Night Watch itself, most of these rarely screened films offered American audiences a unique opportunity to reassess their definitions of both Russian cinema and fantastic film. [1]

The series opened with a beautiful new print of Karen Shakhnazarov’s Zero City (Gorod Zero, 1988). This remarkable document of the waning days of the USSR underlines how powerfully Russia’s fantastic cinematic tradition can incorporate social and political observation. In Zero City, the “imaginary” presents us with more valuable information about living amidst the contradictory social currents of perestroika than many documentary-realist modes ever could. During a brief in-person introduction before an encore screening on 13 August, Shakhnazarov told the audience (in English) that his film was deeply influenced by the sense of an impending end to the Soviet Union, but refrained from explaining that connection in any more detail―he said he believes directors do better by showing rather than telling. The modest Shakhnazarov (currently Director General of Mosfilm Studio) thanked the audience for attending his film on a perfect summer day that he admitted he himself would probably not spend inside a movie theater, and hoped they would enjoy his film―but even if they didn’t, he added, it’s not very long so they would not waste much time.

Shakhnazarov need not have worried: his film draws viewers into a mesmerizingly absurd world that fascinates from start to finish. Aleksei Varakin (played by Leonid Filatov with a masterly combination of agitated exasperation and baffled cooperation) arrives in the nameless “Zero City” from Moscow when his engineering firm sends him to discuss the matter of an inadequate air conditioner panel with the manufacturer. When Varakin visits the president of the manufacturing company, he is greeted by a stark naked secretary who seems unaware of her state of undress―a fact that the president himself seems oblivious to (and then dismissive of, when an incredulous Varakin points it out to him). The president has also not heard that the company’s chief engineer died 8 months ago, but when he discovers this, he urges Varakin to return in two weeks―after the president has had a chance to speak with the deceased chief engineer. This strange office visit is just the beginning of Varakin’s increasingly bizarre and intricate involvement with Zero City, a place he eventually realizes he may never leave.

Zero City is certainly indebted to the jolting shocks of the surrealists, as well as the illogical social systems of Franz Kafka and the black comedy of Nikolai Gogol' (among other influences), but what distinguishes the film most impressively is its singular tone―its woozy atmosphere of confusion without real mystery, of escalating hopelessness without real danger. The traces of surrealist humor are present here, but minus the surrealist rage; Kafka’s straight-faced absurdity can be detected, but without the author’s crushing, existential despair. Instead, Zero City unfolds as a hypnotic series of episodes where a bewildered but almost always amenable Varakin is introduced to the many layers of this city’s past, present, and future―including his more and more significant role within it. Varakin is faced with steadily accumulating evidence that he has been to Zero City before, just as the audience grows increasingly accustomed to reading the bizarre phenomena of this place―a museum of the city’s past that includes Trojans, Romans, Stalin, and twin displays of revolving iconic figures from Russia’s idealized past and scruffy, punkish present (all embodied by living actors in frozen poses!), Varakin’s head reproduced as a baked cake, a decades-old debate about rock-n-roll that goes to the city’s political heart―as ways of knowing the chaotic perestroika moment in late Soviet society. What does it mean to face the end of an empire built for so many years on denial of the present in favor of fantasies of the future? What will it mean to live in “the present”? Is it possible or impossible? A daunting opportunity or an hilarious absurdity? These are the questions asked so eloquently and effectively by Zero City―questions that testify to just how intimate and truthful the “fantastik” can be, and, of course, questions that have yet to be answered in Russia.

The second day of the series began with a roundtable on “Russian Fantastika” featuring Robert Skotak, Shakhnazarov, Nikolai Borodachev (Director General of the Russian State Film Archive, Gosfi'lmofond), and Mikhail Kozyrev―director and producer of a 2001 version of Richard Viktorov’s Star Trek-like space opera To the Stars by Hard Ways (Cherez ternii k zvezdam, 1985) that was included in the series. Skotak, an Academy Award-winning visual effects artist―whose credits include X-Men 2 (Bryan Singer, 2003), Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992), and Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)―as well as an historian of visual effects, presented material from Red Fantasies, his ongoing film project concerning the history of Soviet science fiction cinema. The roundtable was followed by a screening of Pavel Klushantsev’s Planet of Storms (Planeta bur', 1961), a space exploration drama best known to American audiences through footage grafted onto no less than three of producer Roger Corman’s low-budget science fiction films of the 1960s.

Planet of Storms leans heavily on an array of ambitious special effects set pieces that will no doubt strike contemporary viewers as dated, but it maintains a notable level of fascination for its mixture of adventurous exploits with melancholy contemplation. For example, the first minutes of the film show us a Soviet spacecraft destroyed by a meteorite―killing everyone aboard―which leaves only Sirius and Vega to carry out the mission of exploring Venus. The cosmonauts aboard the two ships (five men, one woman, and one robot named “John”) struggle against steep odds to complete their dangerous mission. They are challenged by a harsh Venusian environment featuring hostile prehistoric creatures and brutal atmospheric conditions, as well as the limitations of their own technology and stamina. But after a few close calls, they find ways to survive the “planet of storms” and begin the long voyage back to Earth. The only casualty is John, who must be sacrificed during a volcanic eruption in order to save two of the cosmonauts.

Planet of Storms owes debts to any number of American science fiction films—perhaps most notably Forbidden Planet (Fred McLeod Wilcox, 1956), whose Robby the Robot is clearly the model for John—but its tone is quite different. However overwrought the action may become as the crew encounters lizard men, a screeching pterodactyl, and a giant, tentacled Venus flytrap plant, the inclusion of ethereal shots of the fog-enshrouded, craggy, water-saturated landscape and mysterious, echoing sounds in the distance sustains an aura of hushed, intimidating strangeness. The dialogue, which of course includes its share of hollow mission-speak, continually returns to debates about the origins and value of humankind that tend to emphasize the humbling possibility that humanity on Earth may be the product of just the sort of alien visitation these cosmonauts are performing (much less expertly) on Venus. The film’s last glimpse of Venus is truly haunting. The crew, which discovers evidence only in their final minutes on the planet that it must be populated by an advanced, Egyptian-like race of humanoids, misses its encounter with this species. Instead, the audience witnesses one of these humanoids coming across the ruins of the crew’s abandoned space capsule, but only through the shimmering reflection of the Venusian’s image in the same pool through which the cosmonauts once trailed their fingers. The sadness and poignant beauty of this missed encounter conflicts sharply with the inane, upbeat title song that praises the heroism of the cosmonauts in the hokiest of terms, but the power of this final image remains.

The poetic nature of this closing image in Planet of Storms reminds viewers how this series strives to locate the fantastic beyond textbook examples of science fiction. Perhaps to underline this goal, Planet of Storms was preceded by Wladislaw Starewicz’s stunning short film The Cameraman’s Revenge (Mest' kinematograficheskogo operatora, 1912). Starewicz’s deft use of stop-motion animation to tell his tale of a couple’s disastrous adulterous affairs―performed entirely through the manipulation of insect “characters”―provides a wonderful example of how “otherworldly” cinematic technologies and “fantastic” premises can reveal to us anew the supposedly mundane realities of our own everyday existence. This is the kind of revelation that The Cameraman’s Revenge enacts effortlessly from start to finish, but that Planet of Storms can only gesture toward in fits and starts.

Still, comparable moments of revelation can certainly be found sprinkled within and between the other films in the series that have not been mentioned previously: Aleksandr Ptushko’s fanciful adaptation of a Pushkin poem, Ruslan and Ludmila (Ruslan i Liudmila, 1972); Iakov Protazanov’s memorably designed Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) and an excerpt from its companion cartoon spoof, Zenon Komissarenko, Iurii Merkulov, and Nikolai Khodotaev’s Interplanetary Revolution (Mezhplanetnaia revolutsiia, 1924); Gennadii Kazanskii and Vladimir Chebotarev’s wildly popular The Amphibian Man (Chelovek amfibiia, 1961); Mikhail Kariukov and Aleksandr Kozyr'’s The Heavens Call (Nebo zovet, 1959), a tale of two space probes that crash-land on an asteroid; Aleksei Fedorchenko’s mockumentary-themed chronicle of a secret Soviet mission to the moon in 1938, First on the Moon (Pervye na lune, 2005); an adaptation of a classic Gogol' fantasy, Aleksandr Rou’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki, 1961); and the first Soviet science fiction talkie, Vasilii Zhuravlev’s Cosmic Voyage (Kosmicheskii reis, 1936). [2] These films invite us to cobble together our own portraits of the Russian “fantastik” from a variety of perspectives and fragments, some more “successful” than others, but all vital pieces of a cinematic heritage that stretches back decades before Night Watch and promises to extend long into the future.

Adam Lowenstein
University of Pittsburgh


1] Some information on the films and events described throughout this overview is drawn from the program notes written by Kent Jones and Robert Skotak that appeared in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s August 2006 schedule.

2] Vladimir Gardin’s A Spectre Haunts Europe (Prizrak brodit po Evrope, 1922) was also scheduled for screening, but problems with transport of the print prevented its exhibition.

Adam Lowenstein© 2006

Updated: 11 Oct 06