Visitor to a Museum was screened at the BFI, London as part of their KOSMOS season, the second instalment of their Russian cinema season KINO.
Comparisons with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker are near impossible to avoid when reviewing Visitor To A Museum. From its nightmare vision of mankind surviving amongst the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear accident, and its central protagonists weary search to find salvation within an unreachable territory (or the mere fact that director Konstantin Lopushansky assisted Tarkovsky on his second foray into science fiction), the two films share many qualities…except one, Visitor To A Museum has never gained the worldwide notoriety of Stalker, an accolade its dystopian parable depicting the fall of communism undoubtedly deserves.
A nameless ‘tourist’ arrives in a devastated town, intent on undertaking an infamous journey to an ancient museum, now lost to the harsh ecological disaster which has ravaged this land. This mysterious building is only accessible at low tide, with many having perished whilst pursuing this pilgrimage, yet the intellectual treasures it houses have become almost legendary and regarded by many to outweigh the peril involved.
The tourist checks in at a local guest house, an ex weather station, where he waits for the opportune moment to beginning his perilous expedition to this mythical monument of human progress. Nearby, this former meteorological station is a community of nuclear fallout victims who are regarded as little more than infected cockroaches by the locals, crawling up from beneath the rubble and desecrating this once prosperous area with their hideous appearances. These uneducated and malformed masses are prone to religious hysteria and irrational fears of the powers that be, whilst their subservient behaviour and limited intellect has resulted in many of them being chosen by the few ‘healthy’ survivors as servants for their materialistic needs.
The tourist is not as judgemental as the townsfolk and attempts to embrace these lowly peasants as equals. He’s a man haunted by guilt, not for his own actions but by those of all mankind; however, he remains devout in the belief that humanity will lift itself from this self-made pit of despair and achieve redemption through the power of science and learning. His faith in the redemptive qualities of mankind and acceptance of the area’s ‘savages’ has made him something of a messiah to these deformed children of the apocalypse, with his planned journey becoming more and more significant by the day…
Once you see beyond the film’s recognisable use of sepia tones and soft lighting to present this futuristic world, as well as the familiar device of a mysterious ‘building’ in which our protagonist must venture to for answers (coupled with most of the film’s action being filmed in once prosperous factories of the Soviet Union), there is much more at the heart of Visitor To A Museum than mere similarities with Tarkovsky’s seminal sci-fi film, Stalker.
The film’s heavy-handed but meticulously detailed approach in creating this ecologically devastated world builds a unique atmosphere, which feels incredibly fresh and inventive when compared with the increasingly formulaic approach of modern science fiction films, which often spend more time imitating others than crafting their own dystopian world.
Visitor To A Museum relies heavily on its score to achieve the distinctive mood of despair that consumes its world; combining natural and artificial sounds to create an unavoidable soundtrack which amplifies the film’s numerous haunting qualities and general feeling of anxiety. Successfully amalgamating orchestrated strings with harsh electronic rhythms, this unsympathetic splicing of earthy noises with artificial, computerised reverberations seems to fit perfectly with the film’s barren landscape, a world where mankind’s meddling has overpowered nature and destroyed the purity and grace of its once flourishing land.
Made during Perestroika (a political movement within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during 1980s, its literal meaning is ‘restructuring’, referring to the restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system), when Soviet economic and belief systems were showing signs of failing, Lopushansky’s film has perfectly depicted the sentiments of a country undergoing a time of great instability. This obsession with scientific advancement within the USSR was probably most prominent during the Space Race (a series of events which led to a cultural obsession with all things astronomical and an abundance of great sci-fi films), yet, ironically, Visitor To A Museum has little in the way of space exploration and its desolate landscape doesn’t house any ravenous alien species. Instead, we are presented with an unrecognisable world savaged by our own greed and neglect, for in Visitor To A Museum we are in fact the ‘aliens’ and, indeed, the ones who should be feared.
The film has often been referred to as an unabashed Christian allegory for a post Chernobyl future, where man has created their own hell through an unstoppable pursuit of power and knowledge. During the Cold War, science and material culture had replaced religion, but, as the economy began to crumble, people fled back to their old beliefs, an issue represented within the film by the horrendous way in which the locals disregard these infected casualties and their spiritual beliefs. Yet, when the USSR finally collapsed, there was a surge of church building, a sure sign of where this newly placed trust in science and communism dispersed to. The film’s ‘visitor’ initially embodies the quest for power once evident in the Cold War era of the USSR, but when his journey becomes eclipsed by spiritualism, the tone of the film, much like in Russia during the Brezhnev era, noticeably shifts to a more pious, godly atmosphere, which twists and moulds the action into an all together different but no less enjoyable film.
Visitor To A Museum takes the horrors of Chernobyl, the inevitable Soviet implosion and the economic failings of mass production within Russia and creates an apocalyptic setting, far more devastating than anything created before, or indeed after its release. The amplifying of these social issues help the film create a nightmarish vision of the future that, at the time, was a genuinely real concern; however, considering our current environmental predicament and economic crisis, this cautionary tale is just as appropriate now. Truly a remarkable portrait of society at its weakest.