It’s 2006—do you know where your planets are? In the same August week that saw the International Astronomical Union reopen our solar system’s boundaries, the Film Society of Lincoln Center unfurled the apposite series “From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema,” perhaps the most venturesome attraction yet to fill the dog-days repertory slot long consecrated to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Demarcating the strain of “fantastika” in Russian and Soviet film—a hybrid of lineal Slavic occultism, technological boosterism, revolutionary utopian forecasting, and sui generis influences like the cosmist guru Nikolai Fedorov—the shapely survey stretched from the silent Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) to Alexei Fedorchenko’s pristine First on the Moon (2005).
The retrospective actually germinated in the depths of the Cold War, when the young Robert Skotak caught a 1958 episode of Walter Cronkite’s show Twenty-First Century presenting a shortened version of Road to the Stars, a space-exploration documentary by Pavel Klushantsev, whose sole fictional feature Planet of Storms (1961) was included in “Tsars to Stars.” Skotak, who would grow up to become an Academy-Award-winning special effects artist and supervisor on such films as Aliens, Batman Returns, and Titanic, was entranced by both the “visual richness” of Road to the Stars and its red mystique. “Russia was the forbidden fruit,” he recalled during the series. “I grew up during the blacklist period, with shows like I Led Three Lives and communism in the headlines daily, alongside the space race and a very tangible fear of atomic war.”
Skotak’s burgeoning visual instinct was further piqued by Soviet productions that snuck onto U.S. screens in the 1960s courtesy of the enterprising Roger Corman. Having somehow procured a clutch of fantastika for a song, Corman set his hive of surgeons to work. Thus Aleksandr Ptushko’s beloved Rimsky-Korsakov adaptation, Sadko (1952), was julienned into Francis Coppola’s Magic Voyage of Sinbad (1962); Mikhail Karukov and Aleksandr Kozyr’s space opera The Heavens Cal_l (1959) begat Coppola’s _Battle Beyond the Sun (1963); and the fertile Planet of Storms whelped a pair of bastards—Curtis Harrington’s Voyage To the Prehistoric Planet (1963) and Peter Bogdanovich’s Voyage To the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968). “You weren’t supposed to give these movies credence because they were communist propaganda,” Skotak said. “That made it more intriguing.”
Nursing this fascination into adulthood, Skotak gradually developed a documentary work-in-progress, Red Fantasies. Through Dennis Bartok, until recently of the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, with whom he’d instigated an earlier Ptushko survey, Skotak joined forces with Russian Ã©migrÃ© impresario Alla Verlotsky, and the series countdown began. Since launching her Seagull Films outfit, Verlotsky has brought to North American audiences a bounty of Russian film. This year alone she scored a Walter Reade trifecta with a tribute to Elem Klimov and Larisa Shepitko, including Shepitko’s subtly fantastik morsel Homeland of Electricity (1967), and November’s spotlight on the brothers Kaufman (cinematographer Boris, documentarist Mikhail, and Dziga Vertov), in addition to the “Tsars to Stars” series. In contrast to the many challenging auteur films in Seagull’s archive, epitomized here by Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971) and Stalker (1979), “Tsars to Stars” contains several irreducibly populist titles, like the Socialist Realist slab The Heavens Call, the heteroclite marvel Amphibian Man (1962), and the opulent Ruslan and Lyudmila (1972) by Ptushko, who was venerated as “people’s artist” in 1969 just as the Soviets were being outraced to the moon.
But neither populism nor popularity offers insurance against adversity. Jakov Protazanov, one of a very few late-imperial auteurs to continue making films under communism, directed Aelita from Alexei Tolstoy’s 1923 novel, itself the product of a rage for fantastika in the post-civil-war New Economic Policy interval before Stalin’s rise and consolidation of his personality cult. Such was the mass appetite for tomorrowland scenarios, presaged by fin-de-siÃ¨cle utopian conjectures and riding a Taylorist mechanization vogue, that even upper-crust artists like Tolstoy felt induced to issue nonce potboilers, although his eminence and Protazanov’s sterling pre-revolutionary box-office record couldn’t save Aelita from being scourged for its decadent constructivist ebullience.
A gap in the series chronology reflects the quarter century when science fiction and fantastika were anathematized, between the early-â€˜30s Socialist Realism edict and Khrushchev’s 1957 speech denouncing Stalin’s terror. Tolstoy’s The Garin Death Ray only appeared posthumously in that year, before being adapted twice for film, heralding a deluge of newly legitimized sci-fi that would climax with the revisionism of the Strugatsky brothers’ Hard To Be a God and Predatory Things of Our Age. Yet even during the Thaw, Pavel Klushantsev’s long-cherished fictional script The Moonstone could still be suppressed. Its emphasis on fraternal cooperation between Soviet, German, and American crews proved intolerable. A kernel endures, however, in Planet of Storms’ notional Yank who oversees the formidable robot that imperils its masters, from which Stanley Kubrick drew inspiration—another fork in the long transactional history between Russian and Hollywood filmmaking.
It’s worth considering an auteurist and a populist example from the series in turn. Made at glasnost’s high tide, Karen Shakhnazarov’s Zero City (1988) demonstrated fantastika’s expansive parameters and potential heft. Zero City has no sci-fi trappings but rather unfolds in a quotidian irreal, maintaining a pictorial verisimilitude from the opening vertical crane shot of a rain-washed rail station at daybreak, while shearing almost at once into the inexplicable. Varakin (Leonid Filatov), a state functionary from Moscow, has arrived in a nameless provincial burg to meet with a manufacturer about altering some ventilation fixtures on standing order. Calling at the factory office, Varakin is disarmed to behold a buck naked receptionist typing at the front desk. The torpid boss (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) listens to Varakin’s request, then buzzes the secretary to summon their chief engineer; she informs him, evidently for the first time, that the man drowned eight months ago. Betraying no glint of emotion, the director invites Varakin to return two weeks hence; everything will be taken care of.
Flustered, Varakin repairs to an almost empty, mausoleum-like restaurant for supper before heading back. He’s presented with an unasked-for dessert, a cake sculpted in the precise likeness of his own head. The waiter carves off a wedge and says if he doesn’t try it, the chef, who fixed it specially, will kill himself. Varakin makes for the door—a shot!—and wheels round to see the bloodied chef, gun in hand, hit the floor. (Did I mention the octet serenading from behind the retractable wall-sized landscape mural?) Now quite keen to get home, Varakin is told by the stationmaster’s wife that “the tickets are all gone.” A taxi carries him toward the next nearest station, but the driver abruptly brakes at a sign on a backwoods highway, incapable of proceeding. Setting out to cover the remaining kilometer and change on foot, Varakin encounters an eerie solid vegetal wall sealing the road. Approaching a nearby manor, he discovers a caretaker (Yevgeni Yevstigneyev) who phones a neighbor to drive him back to town (“The station? It never existed.”) and, while he’s waiting, offers to give him a guided tour, for only 30 kopecks, of the building’s subterranean museum.
At this point Shakhnazarov veers close to Nabokov’s celebrated tale “A Visit to the Museum,” baring the allegorical apparatus. A sequence of dioramas peopled by unmoving actors (cheaper than fabricating lifelike mannequins) commemorate arcane historical moments, none odder than that devoted to a certain Nikolaev, the town’s “first rock â€˜n’ roller,” whom the townsfolk soon prove bent on believing was Varakin’s own father. The caretaker’s neighbor, a lacquered new-wave minx, finally shows up to fetch Varakin, but before they can reach town the police nab him for questioning about the chef’s suicide—or was it, as they suspect, a murder? A mordant “wrong man” scenario emerges, with Varakin soon trying to gratify his kindly captors and giving way at last to an unexpected, softly breathtaking epiphany. Shakhnazarov stages the material with serene authority, and Leonid Filatov’s lithe performance makes the whole delirium affectingly suspenseful.
Richard Viktorov’s To the Stars By Hard Ways, released in 1981 and seen by at least 20 million Russians, was presented at the Walter Reade in a restored and modified 2001 version that looked and sounded spiffy, though some may be partial to the literally translated title Through the Thicket to the Stars. Mikhail Kosirev, who supervised the restoration, introduced two screenings and joined the fantastika panel on August 12. There he related in ample detail the obstacles surmounted in locating and appraising the source elements, lifting an internegative from the release print held by Sovexportfilm, and reconstructing the soundtrack, while otherwise sitting quietly in a tight, sleeveless black T-shirt, house lights beaming off his varnished pate. These labors yielded a print that displays the filmmakers’ threadbare ingenuity to fine effect, enhancing a durable story of a girl who fell to earth, secretly programmed to rescue her dying world.
Opening to a Giorgio Moroder-flavored synth pulse, the spacecraft Pushkin intercepts a drifting, damaged vessel and retrieves a humanoid (Yelena Metyelkina) that resembles Anna Karina with a supermodel’s starveling physique in an egg-white Astroturf skullcap. Immediately, genial professor Klimov (Aleksandr Lazarev) spars with severe scientist Nadezhda Ivanova (Nadezhda Semyontsova) over what to do with the not-quite human demoiselle—he wants to awaken her gently, she’s itching for invasive experiments—as the Pushkin’s mod politburo, including a couple of black comrades, arbitrates. Consigned to stolid Lebedev (Uldis Lieldidz), the foundling, now called Neeya, alights in his commodious earthbound dacha. Without trying, she steals the heart of his rookie cosmonaut son, Stepan (Vadim Ledogorov, grown up from Viktorov’s 1974 Teenagers In Space) while slowly recalling the mission encrypted by her maker: she must enlist the Soviets’ advanced technological might to save Dessa, her home planet.
In due course Neeya stows away on Stepan’s maiden voyage, meeting a pair of her Dessan brethren aboard, recognizable by a slender soul patch worn over the left cusp of the chin. One of them, however, is a double agent for Turanchoks (Vladimir Fyodorov), the tyrannical dwarf who’s enslaved Dessa’s extant human populace through monopoly control of the oxygen masks necessary for survival in the planet’s ruined troposphere. At certain points To the Stars By Hard Ways resounds uncannily with our present outlook: approaching Dessa, the crew remarks how its “equatorial zones have been devastated” by the climatic fallout from some unspecified industry and speculate that its remnant species would have no choice but to “migrate to the polar regions,” a diagnosis within the realm of predictions for our own planet’s global warming. Touching down in what looks like Shannon County, South Dakota, they go on to detox a patch of pestilential smog, and a rainbow smiles.
At the August 12 panel, Skotak screened the trailer for his documentary Red Fantasies, pieced from sixth- or seventh-generation dubs of fantastika classics never aired in the West, gathered over decades of termite research. Karen Shakhnazarov, attending in his role as current director general of Mosfilm, took one look and, like a riddle from Zero City in reverse, threw open the vault without explanation or ceremony, pledging Skotak full access to Mosfilm’s archive. With that sort of result, the Walter Reade might want to try sponsoring this kind of husbandry more often.
Ioannis Mookas writes regularly on film for Gay City News.