The Mysterious Wall

The Mysterious Wall is a Soviet science fiction film directed by Irina Povolotskaya (a student of Alexander Dovzhenko and Michael Chiaureli) and Mikhail Sadkovich in 1967. This film is absolutely unknown since it was shelved pretty much right after it was made. Although some censor might have seen the Wall as a metaphor of the Iron Curtain (and there are other moments in the film such as the connection of science with the military that could also provoke questions), the political commentary is pretty subtle and does not exceed what was ‘allowed’ in Soviet science fiction. So it’s rather strange that this film was shelved to be never rediscovered later. Meanwhile, it is an interesting work for a variety of reasons.

This film is about the Soviet physicists who investigate a mysterious object identified as the “Wall” that periodically re-appears on the same location and at the same time. The Wall looks like a thundercloud that surrounds a certain area and cannot be penetrated by radiowaves. It is exactly on that location behind the spheric Wall that the scientists organize a lab to study it. At the same time, no one is allowed to approach the Wall and if they do, a siren goes off. They are told (by the military) that the Wall poses a danger — but for whom, how, and why remains unclear.

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At places, the film really reminds of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. However, The Mysterious Wall precedes both Soviet adaptations of Solaris — the one by Boris Nirenburg’s, his 1968 TV film, and Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation. Some of the dialogues (which I’ve added in English below) can easily compete with the philosophical meditations about intelligence, life, and meaning in Solaris.

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As one reader has pointed out in comments, and it is worth mentioning here, the scientific consultant of the film is Nikolai Kardashev, a known Soviet (now, Russian) astronomer and astrophysicist. So I did some research on this. Apparently, Kardashov is now in his 80s, but he is still a deputy director of the Russian Space Research Institute (The Institute for Cosmic Research) of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. In 1963, he published a paper called “Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations” that was one of the things that made his name and career. In this paper, he proposed the famous Kardashev scale, a system for classification of hypothetical alien civilizations according to the amount of energy they are able to utilize and the method of quantification of the power available to them for radio transmissions.

Also, during the Soviet years, Kardashov became known for his research on wormholes. He planned to continue the research with the help of the project RadioAstron, but unfortunately, it was closed down with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. (The project was relaunched only 30 years later, in 2011). In one of his papers, Kardashov writes, “Wormholes are thought to have their own structure, different from a black hole. The core of a black hole is indeed black, and it’s the surrounding gas that emits radiation. But if it’s a wormhole, the radiation should be emitted from the wormhole itself.” There are echoes of such hypothesis in the film as well.

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One of the protagonists, Yegor Lomov (Лев Круглый), a scientist who has spent a while at the laboratory studying the Wall, suspects that the Wall is an intelligent visitor from another planet, possibly, from Mars. He makes an attempt of communication by sending some simple drawings of objects such as a house, a tree, or geometrical figures such as a triangle and a circle. But the technology crashes. Valya Karpukhin (Андрей Миронов), a lieutenant who has just arrived to the station, is asked to fix the malfunction. But the first thing he does is he draws his own image for transmission: a boat, which comes from his memory. As soon as he does it, he suddenly hallucinates. (Is that the Wall’s response? Has it received the message?) Valya sees himself on that boat which follows a SOS signal and saves a man floating in a bath tab with a typewriter and a black cat in the middle of the ocean. He is fully aware it is not a reality and keeps asking people on the boat whether it is a dream. When he jumps to save the man in the water, he comes out absolutely dry (and still wearing his winter clothing), while everyone else is, of course, soaking wet.

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The lieutenant believes the saved man is from Mars, although the man says he is a Canadian writer. While others are figuring what language the man speaks, Valya communicates with him without translation. However, he understands only the literal meaning of words and sentences and does not get the ‘message’ behind the man’s speech about the totality of misunderstanding, about everyone being like an alien to one another. The lieutenant is confused. In the following dialog, they speculate about the meanings of “understanding”, or rather, “misunderstanding”:

Why did you save me?

But you sent a SOS signal!

Well, I though I would not be heard, I was alone… lonely in the ocean…

Listen, aren’t you a Martian?

Oh, no. I am nobody. I am alone in the ocean. Although “Martian” sounds very nice. Yes, I am a Martian. For you, I am a Martian: you do not understand me and I do not understand you, for you, I am “Martian”. We all are Martians, we are all naked in the ocean.

The whole world is permeated with strontium: the air, the continents, even the shells on the bottom of the sea. Strontium is everywhere. And nobody can understand what kind of wall separates the people.

What are you?

I am a writer, I am writing a book about how lonely a human being is. … The distance between people is just as big as between the stars in the universe.

No, it’s not true. You were drowning in the ocean and we came right to you, you called for help and we saved you, so you are wrong.

(laughs) Propaganda!

After that, the man insists on leaving, grabs his cat and a typewriter and disappears in the ocean.

Another scientist, Andrei Erdeli (Ираклий Учанейшвили), a friend of Yegor, goes for a walk and also suddenly finds himself caught by a hallucination where he sees his (deceased?) uncle Georgy. Andrei is also aware that it is a hallucination and even asks Georgy why it is happening. He perceives it, too, as the Martians’ attempt to establish communication with the scientists in the way of appearing as people from the scientists’ past, in which the film, again, reminds of Solaris.

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The grape grows, the sun is shining, we are drinking wine with you… but why? why grape? what for? this sun? this wine? why does the collector lie to the women? why do they want to retire me? why did you go to Moscow and are now visiting your wife like a guest? why don’t you work as a collector? 

You are a dream, uncle Georgy. You are what I remember about you. You are a hallucination. … What are you, old man? You know what I am asking!

Well, if you want, call me a Martian…

How do you do it?

You won’t understand it anyway. Because you are afraid. 

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Lomov, who has been staying at the station for quite some time, has a hallucination about being delivered to a laboratory where he meets the team of people working with the machines that look like old computers. The lab team tests the theory of the Wall being an intelligent visitor from the outer space. Lomov formulates questions for the ‘computer’ and it produces the response in the form of a long printed text. The woman scientist pulls it out of the machine and reads it out loud.  She almost seems like an embodiment of this machine as she only voices the machine’s responses and does not express her own opinions; besides, when Lomov argues with the machine he directs his speech towards the woman and not towards the machine. The conversation here is also about understanding and/as misunderstanding. When Lomov asks about the Wall, the machine’s response, for the most part, is taken from the dictionary, a simple entry on “wall”, but suddenly, it transforms into a summery of millions of years of life on Earth, which is where “misunderstanding” is, supposedly, rooted:

What is the Wall? (he asks an older man)

What “wall”, are you out of your mind?

(the woman’s voice reading a dictionary entry on “wall”) A part of a building. Figuratively, an obstacle in communication: i.e. a wall has grown between them. Figuratively, a mass that creates a barricade…

What?

… i.e. the wall of trees, the wall of rain, the wall of fog… “to sit within four walls” means to live without communication with people; set phrase: “to throw pees against the wall” [Russian set phrase, literally – SM] means a conversation without any result or understanding; to climb on the wall; wall clock; wall painting, wall brick…

Now you cannot stop the machine…

Boria, ask the machine, “How to understand one another?”

… you live on Earth. There are three layers of radiation around it. There’s the gravity of Earth, the gravity of Sun, the gravity of Moon. Not so long time ago you invented a stone ax. Not so long time ago you invented a bomb. There is fog near the Wall. One cannot walk through the Wall… The inhabitants of Earth speak 2500 languages. Capitalism, colonialism, materialism, Christianity, Islam, the UN, Bombay, people are buried, sacral gryphons come and eat the dead, a husband does not understand his wife, a woman is burdened by kitchen, it’s a simple logic, it’s impossible to understand one another.

Stop this bullshit!

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By the end of the film, Lena (Татьяна Лаврова), Lomov’s fiancée, also hallucinates. She sees herself giving a lecture for children at the planetarium. She says:

“The stars that you know and recognize appear every night in the sky above us. If you become an astronaut, you will see a very different sky with very different stars and constellations…”

Then she tells the story of Giordano Bruno who was burned by the Inquisition for defending his views.

“This is how difficult it was to prove obvious things that now you read about in any textbook,” she comments. But suddenly, the kids want to know about the Wall… She tries to escape, but the children surround her and keep asking their questions. She rans out on the street, but one boy follows her even there:

Why does the Wall attract? 

Leave me alone!

But why? What if one approaches it?

You don’t exist! Disappear! (as she realizes that it’s a hallucination).

But maybe you should approach it!

As her hallucination dissolves and she finds herself near the station in the forest, Lena follows the boy’s hint and goes towards the Wall in attempt to walk through this Wall  — of fog, or energy, or of some alien matter, or maybe, just an imaginary wall? However, right at the moment when she approaches the Wall, it disappears. On the one hand, she knows it is the time when the Wall is supposed to disappear. So, maybe, Lena is simply too late with her decision (like the character in Kafka’s parable about waiting the permission to enter the gate that is, in fact, open). Or maybe the Wall always disappears when someone approaches it? Or maybe there is no “right” time for such proximity and it’s always either too late or too early? It remains a mystery.

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The film closes with the scene of a press-conference. The scientists are asked many questions about the Wall, but all questions remain unanswered. The answer is not for all, the answer is received individually and cannot be transmitted to the viewers of TV or readers of newspapers. The answer concerns one’s personal history. Otherwise, there is no answer.

Meanwhile, more scientists are sent to investigate the Wall.

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Here, see more on ‘Hunting wormholes in a soviet-era science city’.