The dogged band of survivors in the aftermath of apocalypse – whether alien attack, environmental disaster, nuclear war, or worldwide pandemic virus – has become a preoccupation of science fiction, especially since World War Two and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Developing from H.G. Wells’ visionary The Shape of Things to Come, filmed in 1936 by William Cameron Menzies, the theme has proliferated in the post-War years, becoming a sub-genre in its own right; notable novels and film adaptations range from On the Beach and I Am Legend (filmed as The Omega Man) in the 1950s, through The Day of the Triffids, to the contemporary 28 Days Later and The Road. In the distinctive Eastern European version of the post-apocalyptic film, at its peak between the 1960s to the decline of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the last representatives of humanity are typically corrupt, cynical, disillusioned, and dishonest – the nobler qualities having vanished in the struggle for survival. The bleakest examples portray the ragged remnants of mankind, often diseased or mutated, reduced to scavenging among the post-industrial ruins, occasionally emerging from improvised shelters to salvage a few precious relics of civilisation – from libraries, museums, and schools. As they gather in claustrophobic and spartan enclaves waiting for the inevitable end, there is a stark contrast with the initial optimism which followed the October Revolution of 1917.
In the early years of Soviet rule, the Bolsheviks actively encouraged the population to look forward to the expansion of Communism, spreading a Utopian message both on earth (‘world revolution’) and into the cosmos. The Party enlisted artists to promote their vision in state-sanctioned productions, notably the film Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), itself preceded by leading Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 novel Red Star, which effectively transplanted Marxism to Mars. That expansive mood had long since been dissipated; firstly by the dictates of ‘socialist realism’, aggressively promoted under Stalin, which disdained science fiction in favour of heroic portraits of the Soviet workers’ struggle, and later by economic stagnation and social decay, Cold War paranoia and pessimism. The 1966 Czech film The End of August at the Hotel Ozone depicts a group of virtually feral female survivors wandering the desolate countryside, anticipating a bleak, cruel and violent future. 1985’s O-Bi O-Ba (subtitled The End of Civilisation) by Polish writer/director Piotr Szulkin, is set in a particularly grim underground bunker, whose inhabitants endure a hopeless wait for a new Ark. Both represent a widespread disillusionment with the project of international Communism, and express subtle dissent against the central control exerted by Moscow over its satellite nations of the Eastern Bloc.
|Above: Poster for Aelita|
Right: Poster for Voyage to Mars
Though still closely overseen by the state after the death of Stalin, film-makers, artists and writers were able – often avoiding censorship by using science fiction as a metaphor – to articulate these fears. In 1972, Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky filmed Solaris, based on Stanislav Lem’s novel, set on a near-deserted, distant space station; a meditation on an aborted mission which paralleled the abandonment of the space programme. With the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin’s historic orbital flight four years later, there had been a brief rush to glorify the triumphs of the cosmonauts; after the American moon landing of 1969 effectively marked the end of the space race, the focus largely shifted from the conquest of the stars to the struggle for survival on an ailing earth.
Tarkovsky returned to science fiction themes in 1979’s Stalker, adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by the brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future considers Roadside Picnic in terms of problematic or ‘failed’ Utopias, with professional scavengers, or ‘stalkers’, entering the Zones (sites of alien visitation, now sealed by the authorities) in search of bounty, though they run the risk of encountering inexplicable dangers and death. As it transpired, the filming locations close to the Estonian capital Tallinn proved deadly; an abandoned electrical generating station and the Jägala River, polluted by an upstream chemical works were linked to the early deaths from bronchial cancer of Tarkovsky, his wife Larisa, and actor Anatoly Solonitsyn. The Zone, mysterious centre-piece of book and film, was not only the name later applied to the contaminated area of exclusion around Chernobyl but, as James Norton noted in an article for Vertigo magazine, ‘Stalking the Stalker’, “was also the term by which the Gulag was known, as the Russian audience would have recognised.”
|Location map for Stalker|
The loose trilogy of post-apocalypse nightmares by Tarkovsky’s protégé Konstantin Lopuchansky – Letters from a Dead Man, Visitor to a Museum, and The Ugly Swans (another adaptation of a novel by the Strugatsky brothers) – focus unflinchingly on the decline of the Communist dream. This trio of films, the first two made in the later 1980s, are alike set in landscapes blighted by industrial pollution, radiation fall-out, and toxic waste, resulting in mental illness and physical mutations. These futuristic visions were thinly-veiled echoes of a catastrophic reality; the 2016 documentary City-40, exposing the once-hidden ecological devastation in one of the Soviet Union’s uranium-processing ‘closed cities’, was part of a gradual process revealing the extent of environmental destruction. Just as the locations of Stalker offered a haunting precursor of tragic things to come, the ravaged nuclear fall-out setting of Letters from a Dead Man pre-figured the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred in the same year as the film’s release, 1986. Combined with an escalating arms race between the USA and USSR, which by the 1980s threatened to become a full-blown conflict, world-wide apocalypse no longer seemed a film-maker’s fanciful notion.