A man named Ivan pulls a pair of frozen slacks from the balcony of his desolate apartment. He tries to thaw them with an iron before briefly touching the hot metal plate with a finger. The monotony of his current life breaks him. He presses the iron onto his thigh before snapping and destroying the little furniture he has. This is a small glimpse into the quiet dystopia presented in Valentyn Vasyanovych’s haunting film Atlantis, a story about an ex-soldier trying to find purpose in post-war Ukraine.
Before diving into the themes of Atlantis, it is important to take note of the world presented in the film. Taking place in the year 2025, the film doesn’t focus on which side wins the war in Ukraine. Instead, it focuses on the bleak wasteland left after the war. In the film, Ukraine did come out victorious, but the film poses the question: does it matter at this stage? It is a dystopia in the most realistic sense, something that many countries have and are experiencing. It portrays Ukraine with hardly an ounce of sunlight; there are always wintery clouds or dense fog obscuring the sun. The land is almost devoid of nature; the audience is only shown large industrial complexes or mud-ridden battlefields. The central character works at a steel mill, living in a decrepit apartment with the barest of essentials. He is only surviving.
There are three central characters in the film: Serhii, who serves as the film’s main protagonist, Ivan, a close friend of Serhii, and Katia, a humanitarian working to exhume corpses in order to properly identify and commemorate the dead. Ivan and Katia effectively serve as two possible outcomes in the story of Serhii. Ivan, who could no longer bear to exist with the current state of his life, dies by suicide. Katia, on the other hand, strives to find purpose in her work with a job that has meaning. Serhii straddles the line between the two, pursuing a meaningful life alongside Katia while fighting against the call to abandon it all.
So why does Serhii continue to work for his country, when the film portrays it as almost a lost cause? His ideals stem from his history as an ex-soldier. For him to abandon his country would mean abandoning the very thing he risked his life for, it would mean abandoning the countless nameless soldiers who sacrificed themselves in the name of freedom. The commemoration of the dead plays a massive role in the narrative. Katia and Serhii work to identify the dead so that they may have proper burials.
Dr. Yuliya Ladygina, a former Sewanee faculty and current faculty at Penn State, returned to the Domain to give a lecture on Ukrainian cinema. Ladygina, whose study on various Ukrainian/Russian films and literature examines the history of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine, explained that the inquiry and examination of the dead is imperative to understanding the current invasion. Each dead body represents the greater whole of the violence caused by the war, and the massive toll that follows.
As stated before, the film is largely about an ex-soldier trying to find a greater purpose in post-war Ukraine. Director of the film, Vasyanovych considers the film optimistic. First and foremost, as he states, the film predicts that the war with Russia will end in the year 2024 with Ukraine being victorious. But, in terms of the film’s narrative, the movie ends on an optimistic note. The situation is bleak from start to finish, but throughout the film, there are small glimpses of hope for a better future, at least for the main protagonist. He starts to come to terms with his past and he starts developing a more intimate relationship with Katia. While the future might be dreary, he finds a level of contentment in the present moment. In one particular scene, he fills the abandoned bucket of an excavator with water and lights a fire to turn it into a makeshift bath. For the first time in the film, we truly see him take a moment of pause to simply enjoy himself. And for the first time in the film, we see that it is a sunny day. Symbolically, it is as if he is being baptized, with the horrors of his past being washed away.
Ladygina states that this film, among others that she features in her work, can be seen as a message to the West. A message that emphasizes the toll that the war has taken on Ukraine. Many people in America give little thought to the war. If it doesn’t affect their personal lives, then why fret over the war? But there is something much larger at stake. The invasion could not only destroy the democracy established in Ukraine, but it could damage democracy as a whole. But there is hope that the West will support Ukraine, not only so that they may claim victory, but also so they can move forward to a better future after the war.