A Russian scientist has three months to live after falling victim for strange radiation from the bottom of the sea in this maritime 1956 Soviet SF. For friends of low-key hard SF, this sympathetic submarine effort is well worth a watch. 7/10
The Mystery of the Eternal Night. 1956, USSR. Directed by Dmitriy Vasilev. Written by Igor Lukovskiy, adapted from his own play. Starring: Ivan Pereverzev, Konstantin Bartashevich, Mikhail Astangov, Apollon Yachnitskiy, Danuta Stolyarskaya, Yelena Izmailova. Produced for Mosfilm. IMDb: 5.4/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Time for another Soviet curio! Tayna vechnoy nochi (1956) seems to be more or less unknown among science fiction fans outside the former Soviet Union and Germany, and it’s a pity.
East of Japan, there is a group of volcanically active islands called Grozny, which are controlled by Russia. They form the setting for the dramatic opening of the Russian 1956 movie Tayna vechnoy nochi. A huge shockwave suddenly washes over the island, sweeping buildings and structures into the sea. A radio operator calls in the disaster and then falls silent. In the office of the oceanographic institute, presumably in Moscow, director Rusanov (Konstantin Bartashevich) is worried, as is research assistant Lavrentyev (Apollon Yachnitskiy). The institure sends a helicopter to the island, and the the hours go by. Until, finally: there is word from the island: damaged structures, no casualties. Lead scientist Aleksey Denisov (Ivan Pereverzev) is on his way back to the institute. Huge sighs of relief.
This well-built intro with impressive special effects leads us to the main story. An underwater eruption has interfered with the construction of a new bathyscaphe capable of taking scientists to the deepest depths of the ocean. Upon his return Denisov tells us with a flashback scene how he got separated from the rest of the staff of the island on a reef with his dog Amur, and that after the eruption, some strange mist rolled in over the sea, knocking him and his dog out. Awaking the next morning, the vegetation had grown out of control, and he discovered a large stem of some unknown deep sea plant, which he has now brought back to the city for analysis. But in the middle of his lecture he stops — suddenly he has gone blind.
After analysing both Denisov and the plant, Professor Mertsalov (Mikhail Astangov) concludes that the plant has been bombarded with some strange radiation, the effects of which were carried with the mist that Denisov and Amur encountered. As a result, Denisov has maybe three months to live. A cure might be found in the strange underwater plant — but they need more, and the bathyscaphe is not yet ready to dive. Meanwhile Denisov’s assistant and sweetheart Lena Turchina (Danuta Stolyarskaya) arrives to the city with research she has made on the island. With these, Denisov concludes that the scientists have found the fabled element of atlantium, an element which has been rumoured to have almost god-like properties, and could be developed into a cure-all, if only they could get more of the radiated underwater plant. Denisov, who slowly gets wise to the fact that people are hiding his fatal condition from him out of mercy, realises getting to the plant is his best chance of survival, and he is the one who is trained in driving the bathyscaphe. Said and done, he Lena, the professor and the doctor return to Grozny Island, to the chagrin of Lavrentyev, who has relished in being top dog at the facility in Denisov’s absence.
So, the the whole team returns to the island and start preparing for the first, historic dive of the deep-sea bathyscaphe. A first dive is ruined when Lavrentyev, who accompanies Denisov in the deep, has a psychotic breakdown and attacks Denisov. The second dive is even more perilous, as Denisov’s condition starts worsening. This time, both director Rusanov and Professor Mertsalov, who is also Denisov’s physician, insist on risking their lives along with Denisov, out of a sense of responsibility. A final dive is prepared. The conditions at the bottom will be deadly due to the terrible radiation, which threatens Denisov’s life — but, explain the scientists, if this deadly radiation can be controlled, it will be a boon to all mankind, a modern-day philosopher’s stone! But what horrors will the scientists meet down among the mysteries of the eternal night of the depths? Will the bathyscaphe hold up under the immense pressure? And will Denisov survive the dive?
Science fiction started to slowly creep back on the Soviet screen after Stalin’s death in 1953, with the gradual loosening of the restraints of Soviet Realism. 1953 saw the release of the anti-US propaganda movie Serebristaya Pyl (review) and in 1956–57 two marine-themed SF films were released almost back-to-back, The Mystery of the Eternal Night and The Mystery of Two Oceans (1957, review). The latter was a rather far-fetched and over-long submarine spy-fi story concerning the hunt for an enemy spy aboard a new super-sub, while The Mystery of the Eternal Night is more inspired by horror and disaster movies. And this one is definitely the better of the two.
The original title of the film is Тайна вечной ночи (Tayna vechnoy nochi), and the English title is a literal translation. The eternal night, of course, references the darkness at the bottom of the ocean. The movie was produced by state-owned Mosfilm and directed by Dmitriy Vasiliev. IMDb lists Soviet film legend Abram Room as “supervising director”, although this credit does not show up on Russian Wikipedia nor on any credible Russian source I can find. The Russian Encyclopedia on Fantastic Film, for example, does not list this credit. However, in 1956 Room was the director of Mosfilm, so it is possible he had some overseeing function on the movie. But since Vasiliev was a seasoned director and double recipient of the Stalin Award, it is difficult to see why Mosfilm would thought he needed shepherding from Room (who himself at one time fell out of favour with the establishment).
The movie is based on a play with the same name by Igor Lukovskiy, who also adapted it for the film. I have not read the play, but according to a few mentions I have found in different sources, the film shakes up the character gallery but essentially follows the play’s plot. Written in 1948, the play was apparently aimed at children and was hugely popular all over the Soviet Union. Several theatre personalities name it as one of their first strong theatrical experiences. For example, noted theatre scholar and educator Aleksey Bartoshevich says in an interview in the magazine Kultura i vremya: “In 1948, as I remember now, we were taken to a performance called The Mystery of the Eternal Night. I now understand that this was a terrible play, political propaganda, there were American spies, submarines, a bathyscaphe that descended to the depths of the sea, there were fish swimming on the stage. And the bathyscaphe was round, and the beams of a spotlight came out of it … Well, it was beautiful! The Mystery of the Eternal Night! […] Probably an idiotic play, but I remember how the performance captured me then with its amazing atmosphere.”
However, it seems that for the movie version, the spy plot of the play has been completely removed. One can easily imagine that it was the character of Lavrentyev that was originally the spy, possibly trying to sabotage the first dive. In the movie, he simply seems to be a threat because he has a nervous breakdown, and seems to be out for Denisov’s post as head scientist on the project. However, I did feel when I watched the film that his character and arc seemed somewhat hazy and unresolved — as a viewer one does sort of expect him to turn out to be an American spy, but that never materialises. That’s why the end of the movie also feels oddly structured. The first dive doesn’t really accomplish anything terms of plot — it’s just an aborted attempt, as opposed to a scenario where it would have revealed one of the main characters as a villain. In fact, for the film, a lot of foreign characters seem to have been turned into Russians. The late artistic director or the Moscow Art Theatre Oleg Tabakov writes in his memoirs Mechta o teatre: “And even the sci-fi play The Mystery of the Eternal Night, where, to the sound of strange sounds and gurgling, the bathyscaphe descended into some unthinkable hollow in the Sea of Japan. There was an enlightened Frenchman, an enlightened Japanese, and even an enlightened American, although, of course, there were sinister Americans who prevented the Soviet professor Kundyushkin from diving into the depression”.
With the spy plot removed, the propelling force of the film Denisov’s impending death. This requires the audience rooting for the hero, which is not always the case in these old movies, where the protagonist can sometimes be so obnoxious that we wish him good riddance. A problem with The Mystery of the Two Oceans was that the film didn’t really have a main character for the audience to latch on to, which made the nearly 2-hour long film feel even longer. But Ivan Pereverzev here not only does a good acting job in the lead, he also gives a sympathetic portrayal of Denisov. He is helped by the script, which paints the character as a warm-hearted and kind person. Denisov seems to be liked by everyone, even his professional rival Lavrentyev. I like the way in which the male characters in the film show genuine affection and gentleness toward each other, that’s something one doesn’t necessarily expect from a Soviet SF film from the 50’s (nor an American one, for that matter). The romance between Denisov and Turchina is refreshingly understated, but ultimately becomes the emotional tug of the film, as it cuts between the bathyscaphe stuck on the bottom of the ocean without radio contact and Turchina waiting for signs of life on the surface. As stated, however, the removal of the spy element is that it renders the character of Lavrentyev somewhat redundant. Director Vasiliev tries his best to make a villain out of Lavrentyev, but the script doesn’t quite permit him to become anything more than an extremely annoying person. This is too bad, as Apollon Yachnitskiy delivers a superb performance.
Another effect of removing the spy plot is that it highlights the propagandistic intent of the film, perhaps somewhat surprisingly. The film revolves around the mysterious radiation emanating from the bottom of the sea. As exemplified by the death of Denisov’s dog and Denisov’s own struggle for life, the rays are potentially deadly. However, the script tells us, if controlled and harnessed, atlantium may become the wonder element that cannot only cure all ailments, but as the dialogue hints, usher in a whole new era of prosperity and progress for humanity. This, of course, is another hunt for the Philosopher’s Stone, that mythical substance which alchemists hoped to discover, which would turn mercury into gold, rejuvenate the elderly and bring eternal life. While the atlantium of The Mystery of the Eternal Night can be viewed as simply another MacGuffin in the vein of the Arc of the Covenant, it also has a specific mission for the film: to promote nuclear power. It is naturally no coincidence that the Philosopher’s Stone is represented by radiation. The film was made in 1956, when the world was still reeling from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By now, understanding of the horrific aftermath, not just from the explosion itself, but from the lingering radiation, had grown, and the full horror of a nuclear explosion was becoming apparent. On the one hand, the Soviet government used the attack and its horrors as an anti-American propaganda tool: naturally, it was a gift from heaven for those who wanted to paint US capitalism as the Great Satan. But on the other hand, both the US and the USSR were desperately trying to turn the public’s attention away from the destructive possibilities of nuclear power toward its constructive uses: power plants. The parallels between atlantium radiation and nuclear power can hardly have been lost on Soviet audiences. Of course, there’s also a suggestion here, never articulated as such: that the scientists have found the lost city of Atlantis, a theme which Lukovskiy would return to.
Technically and artistically The Mystery of the Eternal Night is of varying quality. The best shots of the movie occur in the beginning, with the flood wave hitting Grozny Island. The wave itself looks very good and the blending of blue screen photography and live action is surprisingly competent — there’s no obvious chromatic aberration and the blending of live-action effects and visual effects is quite smooth. The scenes of the mysterious mist rolling in toward the island are also very atmospheric. The bathyscaphe being built is either an actual full-size set or a very successful blending of live-action and miniature, I really can’t tell. The later shots of the bathyscaphe diving do look like they are shot in an aquarium, but hardly any films at the time got past this problem, save perhaps Disney’s multi-million dollar 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, review). The scenes showing the underwater fauna are quite disappointing. All you really get are a few silhouettes of fish swimming by and a couple of deliberately out-of-focus model shots of deep-sea fish like the angler fish. There’s a short dramatic sequence with a stop-motion squid attacking the bathyscaphe, which is OK but not particularly memorable. However, the interior of the bathyscaphe itself is well realised. Overall, the picture is competently shot, primarily in a studio, but with a smattering of location shots here and there. While its theatrical background gives that it is mostly people in rooms talking, the film never feels cramped or contained by budget restraints. There’s enough stony shores, helicopters, back seats of cars, ship’s decks and bathyscapes to keep things interesting. And seldom are the same rooms used more than twice in the movie, as Vasilev moves swiftly from one place to another.
As I mentioned in my review of The Mystery of the Two Oceans, I have a certain fondness for the murky colours of the old Sovcolor film stock, which produced a particular greenish tint. The same stock was used for still photography, which is partly the reason why we have an idea of the Soviet Union as a colourless and grey place under an eternally overcast sky. While it is true that there was a lot of drabness in the USSR, it wasn’t quite as bad as these old films and photos suggest, it’s just that the film stock produced by the Svema and Tasma film factories gave everything a sort of faded look. Overall, The Mystery of the Eternal Night isn’t quite as sweaty and sticky as its sister film, there’s another kind of cleanness and crispness to it. Vasilev directs with confidence and keeps the focus tightly on the character stories, despite the fantastic circumstances. This is partly dictated by the script, but Vasilev enhances it by his gentle photography of the actors and his courage to let the shots linger on their faces. Not that the film is any deep character study, but rather a plot-driven adventure movie, but the characters all feel well-rounded and treated with respect. Characters that would have been throw-away bit parts in other films, like Yelena Izmailova’s nurse Aleksandra, gain genuine weight and prominence. First introduced as the uptight by-the-book nuisance that similar characters are portrayed as in so many films, she turns out to be an emphatic and caring individual, and i a rare scene, we get to meet her in a flowery dress, her hair loosened, outside of her scrubs, when she comforts Turchina aboard the ship back to Grozny.
As stated, Ivan Pereverzev is convincing in the lead, effortlessly embodying both the brilliant scientist and the leather jacket-wielding action hero. But, particularly, he is good in emotional scenes, which are well pencilled by screenwriter Lukovskiy, who lets his characters often suggest rather than say, and trusts that the actors will portray the feelings and meanings that he writes only between the lines. Apollon Yachnitskiy is superb in the role of Lavrentyev. His transformation from steadfast companion to raving lunatic and later black-eyed storm crow is an acting tour de force. In his darkest moments he reminds me of a mix between Brad Dourif’s Wormtongue and Andy Serkis’ flashback Smeagol. The rest of the cast is all good: none named, none forgotten.
I watched the movie at the superb site Soviet Movies Online, where it is available in a German dub and in Russian, with English subtitles. Watching it in Russian makes clear that someone has done a valiant effort to restore the Russian sound version. Apparently, the restorers have had a better preserved German-dubbed copy on their hands than that of the original Russian version. The images are taken from the German version, as evidenced by the German intro titles. Dialogue scenes in Russian are all underscored with a noticeable static buzzing and popping, and outside of the dialogue, the film cuts to the much cleaner German soundtrack. The cuts are often somewhat clumsy, the musical soundtrack becomes slightly jumpy, and the volume varies. This doesn’t really affect the viewing experience to any great degree, although it does sometimes take you out of the moment.
This film, it seems, is oddly neglected, even among friends of old Soviet SF. None of my go-to critics have reviewed it, nor is it mentioned in any of my SF encyclopaedias. It has a 5.4/10 rating on IMDb, based on under 100 votes. I have not found a single online review in English. The film had a wide release in East Germany, and the German-dubbed version has been released on DVD. The only proper review I have found is also in German, but actually comes from Swiss critic Marco Spiess at Molodezhnaja. Apparently, Spiess has expected underwater adventures in the lost city of Atlantis, and is disappointed when, towards the end, it is revealed that the science fiction film is, in fact, fiction about science: “Only now does it become clear that the film is actually just about the energy down there. About the Atlantium, which first irradiates our hero and then heals it. A film about the power of radiation and the recovery of a boring researcher. Nothing else.” He gives the film 1.5/5 stars: “Tayna vechnoy nochi is one of the weakest sci-fi works from the Eastern Bloc, even if you put a nostalgic veil over everything and turn a blind eye to it, you can hardly overlook the flaws. The weak tricks. The irrelevant story. The bland staging. The stiff actors. The lame romance. The tired monsters. There are truly better things to come from beyond the Iron Curtain.” Letterboxd user Joachim Andersson echoes Spiess’ sentiments: “Only in the last fifteen minutes does things start to happen with giant deep sea fish and stop motion octopuses but it’s a chore getting there. Fun as an odd timecapsule of fifties Russia but not much else.” Russian movie site Kinopoisk has a 5.4/10 user rating for the film, with one user review stating that The Mystery of the Eternal Night “will be of interest only to fans of retro SF”. The single user review on IMDb by Morrison-Dylan-Fan gives the movie a 6/10 rating, writing: “For having a underwater Sci-Fi final, the screenplay by Igor Lukovskiy is sadly fairly dry, where aside from a coda saying all the Soviet scientists work will be spread “Among the people”, Lukovskiy keeps things straight-lace, with the scientists staying stoic even when finding radio-activity underwater, as they sail out on the eternal night. Diving deep into the waters of Atlantis, directors Dmitriy Vasilev & Abram Room bring a hard Sci-Fi to land, in Atlantis not being filled with underwater people, but instead being a hub for brightly coloured, radioactive new species of plants and regular-sized fish.”
Well, if you are hoping for fish people, giant monsters or lost civilisations, this is not the film for you. The Mystery of the Eternal Night has its flaws, and it is by no means a neglected masterpiece. But if you don’t mind a bit of character-driven hard SF at a leisurely pace, then the movie might very well be worth 80 minutes of your time, and it should be a worthwhile addition for friends of retro-SF from the Eastern Bloc.
Dmitriy Vasilev is not among the most famous of Soviet directors. Born in the Krasnodar Territory of Caucasus, he studied art and film in Moscow, and worked as an assistant director in the 30’s, most notably for Sergey Eisenstein on the film Alexander Nevsky (1938). He is best known for his biopics on aviation scientist Nikolai Zhukovsky and admiral Pavel Nakhimov who fought the Turks in the Crimean War.
Igor Lukovsky was a playwright, author and screenwriter, and a favourite of Vasilev’s. He specialised in biographical and war dramas, and often adapted his plays for the screen, such as in the case of Admiral Nakhimov (1939/1946) and The Secret of the Eternal Night. But he also wrote three SF plays: The Mystery of the Eternal Night, Гибель дракона (1956, “Death of the dragon”) and Была ли Атлантида? (1962, “Where was Atlantis?”).
Ivan Pereverzev was a popular stage and film actor who was closely associated with marine and naval characters. His defining role was that of legendary naval Admiral Ushakov (1953). So closely did he become associated with that role, that even busts of Ushakov started to be modelled on Pereverzev’s face. Outside of The Mystery of the Eternal Night, he also played the lead in the cult space movie Nebo zovyot / The Heavens Call (1959), which was re-edited by Francis Ford Coppola into Battle Beyond the Sun. Legendary stage actor Mikhail Astangov worked sparingly in film, and is perhaps best remembered for playing Adolf Hitler in the 1949 two-part blockbuster The Battle of Stalingrad. He made one other SF movie: The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965).
Makeup artist Vera Rudina would go on to work extensively with Andrei Tarkovsky, including on Solaris (1972), as would special effects creator Aleksandr Klimenko.
The Mystery of the Eternal Night. 1956, USSR. Directed by Dmitriy Vasilev. Written by Igor Lukovskiy, adapted from his own play. Starring: Ivan Pereverzev, Konstantin Bartashevich, Mikhail Astangov, Apollon Yachnitskiy, Danuta Stolyarskaya, Yelena Izmailova, Pavel Samarin, Yevgeni Tarkhanov, Yan Yanakiyev. Music: Igor Morozov. Cinematography: Nikolai Bolshakov. Editing: P. Chechetkina. Production design: Artur Berger. Costume design: Konstantin Yefimov. Makeup: Vera Rudina. Special effects: Aleksandr Klimenko, Zoya Moryakova.
Categories: Conquest of Earth, Future technology, Futurism, Underwater
I will point out that, in Disney’s 20,000 leagues, the underwater footage of the squid attacking the Nautilus looks like it was shot in an aquarium, no matter how many millions Walt spent or how good the battle on the surface which follows may look!
I had this one way, way on the back burner because all the reviews I’d seen were quite dismissive of it. But I guess now I’ll have to check it out, darn it! At least it is shorter than 2 Oceans…
Great review, BTW, but by now I hardly need to mention that!
Thanks! Yes, you’re right about the squid scene, but otherwise the 20,000 Leagues’ underwater scenes looked quite good. I kinda liked The Mystery of the Eternal Night, but I can understand that why some would consider it boring.
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