“Why have you come?” — Days of Eclipse
Alexander Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse (1988) is less known in Western critical circles but is another great piece of work from Soviet cinema, produced and released before the fall of the Soviet Union. Days of Eclipse is an adaptation of “A Billion Years to the End of the World” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (the English title was idiotically translated as “Definitely Maybe”). The novel is about a Russian astrophysicist that has recently made a groundbreaking discovery in his field but then strange events suddenly start happening to him. Sokurov took the ideas from the novel but not the plot, making the protagonist a physician, changing the setting from Leningrad to a small town in Soviet Turkmenia, and omitting any references to aliens. While Days of Eclipse is grounded in classic Russian science fiction this film transforms the elements of the source material to such a degree that Sokurov turned this science fiction narrative into a magical realist film.
Before directing Days of Eclipse, Sokurov made several documentaries and features and is particular adept in both storytelling modes. In the fourteen films he made from 1974 to 1988, Sokurov became a director that was able to work within the Soviet film industry with only the occasional film being banned by the government. His experience in the documentary tradition taught him how to work with non-professional actors, shoot in on-location settings, and develop his unique visual and audio style that combines techniques from both the fictional and documentary traditions. Overshadowed by the great Andrei Tarkovsky who also adapted a book written by the Strugatsky’s (Stalker (1979) was adapted from their novel “Roadside Picnic”), Sokurov was producing challenging and experimental films that are as challenging and evocative as anything Tarkovsky made in this period.
Sokurov decided to take the Strutagsky’s novel as a blueprint for Days of Eclipse. The presence of UFOs was transcoded into the sound design and camerawork of the film. The camera setups throughout this film resemble surveillance footage. Rather than cutting up the moments in the film with various medium shots, close ups, and inserts Sokurov uses mainly wide shots, holding it for a long duration so atmosphere is filled with the feeling that unwelcome visitor is watching the protagonist and the various townspeople that come to see him for medical attention. The sound design is filled with rumbling noises and muffled conversations that are inaudible but again add to this eerie atmosphere that Sokurov intended.
In Days of Eclipse the main character, Demitri Malianov, conducts medical research in Soviet Turkmenia on the effects of religion on a person’s health. Malianov arrives at the unpopular conclusion that religious patients get sick much less than those that are Athiest. Malianov and other townspeople then experience a series of strange occurrences which they cannot explain. Again, the alien presence is never seen in the film but in a way is the unspoken explanation for these bizarre events that keep occurring to Malianov all of which signal that he is an unwanted visitor in this country.
These strange occurrences could be classified as science fiction or as magical realism. Sokurov’s combines the visual aesthetics of documentary films with fiction to make the fantastical elements appear grounded. It is this grounding in reality that Sokurov achieves along with the atmospheric emphasis of his film style that a good many directors working with low-budgets can use as a blueprint for their films.
Throughout the film Malianov encounters sick and disturbed people. People that obviously need his help but repeatedly reject him. Nearly every person tells Malianov to leave the town. He has almost no friends in the town except for Vecherovsky. The townspeople stare and gawk at Malianov as he walks about. His blonde hair, fit physique, white t-shirt and blues makes him stand out from the locals. Near the end of the film when Malianov accompanies his only friend to the port and yells at a bus passenger “Why are you staring at me?!” Malianov gets no answer.
The strangest sequence in the film is when Malianov’s friend dies and he visits the morgue to view the body. The corpse speaks to Malianov:
Why have you come? Go away. This is not a place for the living. Do not take sin onto your soul. The circle is defined, you must not go outside it even for a single moment. By losing this circle, by attempting to go outside it through reason, you do not know which sentries you have aroused, which force you have directed against yourself. When you step across the border of this circle you lose forever that which is found within its borders and there is no path back.
Malianov gets a message from the dead, telling him to leave the town. This unfriendly message is repeated again when Malianov’s visits another friend’s father. The father sits Malianov down for a serious talk: he tells him to stop writing and just be a physician (while this conversation is going on there is large dark animal like thing stuck against the wall in the house that no one except for Malianov acknowledges). Everyone that tells Malianov to leave does not have a good reason for their advice but they firmly believe Malianov does not belong in this town. These strange occurrences that would feel at home in a science fiction or supernatural film appears quite fantastic in this setting. The combination of Sokurov’s documentary aesthetic, preference for emphasizing atmosphere and mood over plot and exposition, and the science fiction elements from the source material make this Soviet science fiction film feel more like a magical realist narrative instead.
Compared to Western productions, Soviet films always had less resources to work with which makes any science fiction production less likely to succeed even before the director shoots a foot of film. Tarkovsky was able to construct elaborate sets for Solaris (1972) but Sokurov had much smaller budgets to work with in the seventies and eighties than his fellow Soviet colleague. Producing science fiction films in this period meant relying heavily on the production and costume design to create the setting of the story and sometimes the primitive special effects were used to boost this important aspect of science fiction films. The science fiction aspect of science fiction films comes down to the sets, costume, and the art design. It has little affect on the narrative except for the details that refer to the settings. This means that the science fiction genre was basically defined by semantic components and did not have a syntactic component (that is, a narrative structure that was specifically science fiction and not an adventure, war, or action film). Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) broke with this tradition and in this respect was ground breaking for science fiction cinema. However, Kubrick’s vision required the elaborate sets and art design that it received for it to be the film that he made. Sokurov, and many other Soviet filmmakers, worked with relatively miniscule budgets and were repeatedly censored by the government for any ideas that resembled dissent or spirituality.
Why Sokurov and this film, Days of Eclipse is so important for contemporary filmmakers that have a strong desire to depict science fiction ideas and stories is because it shows that a director does not need expensive and elaborate set designs and cutting edge visual effects to make a compelling science fiction film. All they need is an understanding of storytelling with images and sound.