Envisioning hope and despair after years of death and destruction: “Atlantis” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film4 min read
Valentyn Vasyanovych’s 2019 drama Atlantis is a valuable attempt to imagine a post-war Ukraine, including both its physical and emotional scars. Though the direct effects of war may be bleak, Vasyanovych stays optimistic, leaving the viewers with hope, no matter how dire the circumstances may be.
From its first few minutes, which is shot using thermal imaging, Atlantis marks itself as a more artistic film, focusing less on telling the classic war stories than on examining the tolls of war through lengthy static tableaux. The film won the award for Best Film in the Horizons section of the 76th Venice International Film Festival, and was selected as the Ukrainian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards.
The story is set in eastern Ukraine in 2025, “a year after the end of the war.” Though this war is never named, it is clear what Vasyanovych is referencing; the film has even stood the test of time, taking on further nuance following the 2022 full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The film’s main protagonist is Serhiy (Andriy Rymaruk), a former soldier struggling to adjust to his new life in a dying steel mill. Both Serhiy and his friend Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak), who comes from a similar background, still engage in militaristic exploits as a means of coping with the changes in their lives, and both are clearly dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. While Serhiy is able to come to terms with his actions at least to some degree, Ivan, as his foil, meets a gruesome end, choosing death via liquid steel rather than life with all of its regrets.
This questioning of what the war has brought other than pain is a constant element throughout the film. Many of the minor characters Serhiy encounters are struggling to come to terms with what has happened to them, or what they have done. At one point, a fight breaks out between Serhiy and another man who does not see Serhiy’s role as a soldier as having been beneficial to anyone: “Did I ask you to protect me? Was my life bad? I had a job. Now I don’t.” For him, the economic toll the war has taken on his livelihood is more important than who won or lost.
Continuing this theme of life and death, Serhiy finds consolation and distraction in his love interest Katya (Liudmyla Bileka) and her work. Originally studying to be an archaeologist, she now spends her time digging up the much more recent victims of the war. As she tells Serhiy, she does the work to “let the dead say goodbye to their relatives, finish their life story, and their war.” She becomes a means of escape for Serhiy, as well as a source of hope.
All of these interactions are set against the backdrop of an environment that has been absolutely decimated by the war — to the point where Serhiy is warned he should leave due to the land’s supposed inability to support human life. “It took you ten years to clean this territory of the poison of Soviet propaganda and myths. But now you have to clean the water and soil,” an NGO worker tells Serhiy. “That will take decades, even hundreds of years.” The process of demining the region is estimated to take a minimum of 15-20 years, and all drinking water must be imported for the foreseeable future due to the pollution. Yet, as Serhiy questions, what was the point of so many years of war, just to leave now?
Seen in today’s context, these questions of environmental tolls are even more crucial. Already, the Black Sea is seeing an increase in the number of dead dolphins and porpoises washing up on shore, likely due to the increased Russian naval activity. Furthermore, like in the film, damage to industrial industries has polluted the air, water, and soil, and continued shelling near nuclear power plants has increased the risk of a nuclear accident. Throughout the film, Vasyanovych’s shots tend to linger on the bombed-out landscapes, their otherworldliness partly explaining the title choice. These images are also a warning to the viewer of what their world might become if this war continues.
With its slow-moving plot and lingering essence, Atlantis will not appeal to everyone, especially those seeking an adrenaline-filled war movie. However, for those who want a glimpse at what a post-war Ukraine could look like, in terms of both the bad and the good, Vasyanovych’s film is one to keep in mind, especially once this post-war future comes to pass.