In a recent interview with The Atlantic, President Zelensky described Ukraine’s early release in tragic terms. Ukraine could maintain its sovereignty, but Ukrainians could never feel victorious as long as the crimes perpetrated against them went unpunished. Valentyn Vasyanovych’s film Atlantis predicted such a grim victory. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, Ukraine then chose it as an entry for the Oscars. Despite the accolades, the film’s sales remained low before the Russian invasion. Since then, however, a recent surge in interest in the film has led to its availability on MUBI, iTunes, Amazon Prime and HBO Max. It premiered in Italian cinemas last week and is set to hit theaters in Japan as well. The film’s prophetic questions about war remain as uncomfortable as before, though now impossible to ignore. These questions revolve not only around the tragic consequences of war (its impact on human life and environmental degradation), but also its causes – which persist in the wake of victory.
Shot in Mariupol, a city in the East now declared by its mayor “90% destroyed”, Vasyanovych places Atlantis in 2025, “one year after the war” with Russia. The first half of the film, and even most of it, confronts us with a series of static shots where the action unfolds with cold indifference. The story focuses on Sergiy, a veteran and steelworker dealing with the aftermath of war. The first of these effects is psychological. His friend, described as “in a state of shock”, is struggling to adjust to civilian life again. He both complains that their fight was in vain and wonders if the two could become mercenaries elsewhere. Anything to get away from the rolling mill, and the same grind of industrial work so fragilely dependent on market forces and politics. “I went to war and thought something might change,” he complains. “No fucking way. They’re still hard-line Soviets. They want a czar to come and solve all their problems.
Tortured by sleepless nights, the friend ends his life by throwing himself into a cauldron. These may be familiar symptoms of PTSD, but they are also all-too-familiar symptoms from Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. Settled in Tsarist times by migrants from across the empire, Donbass was a planned industrial heartland; the product of imported British industrial expertise. We could always better understand his politics in this context: sometimes pro-kyiv, sometimes pro-Moscow, all depending on the plight of the region’s particularly diverse and industrialized residents. The fall of the USSR was much the same. Although the Soviets advertised the miners and factory workers of Donbass as Soviet, buying their goodwill became too expensive for Moscow in the years of decline of its coal industry. In 1991, these workers had become separatists… pro-Ukrainians. It turns out that the Donbass frequently prayed for something or someone to “come and solve all their problems”.
These issues are familiar to anyone in the United States familiar with West Virginia politics. Are mines good for us? If we thought clearly, we would answer no. The work is dangerous, the technology obsolete. However, the worker remembers a past “greatness” which seems easier to recover by secession than by adaptation. Where are the resources to retrain them and redevelop their region, anyway? Another election passes and the promises dry up. Maybe joining the EU could have drowned all the problems in a sea of investments? Not before extinguishing the region’s proud independence.
Sergiy and his colleagues gather in the factory in front of a screen on which a Briton serves them a bitter pill of post-war neoliberalism. His words are translated from English for them: “You, your fathers and your grandfathers have worked long and hard to produce this life for your families. You produced quality steel that was sold around the world. You delivered the old Ukraine. But times are changing. Everything has a beginning and an end. Today it is my sad task to tell you that these great works are going to be closed for reconstruction.
The crowd erupts in protest. “Yes, I understand your concern, he continues, but we have no choice. New times are upon us. New technologies make the old method superfluous. These new technologies offer new opportunities. And together we propose to work for a new future. A competitive Ukraine, a brilliant Ukraine. So let’s not glorify the past. Yes, there was the heroic spirit of the past. Let’s use new technologies. Let’s celebrate the new future together. So thanks. Let’s drink!”
Who can deny that this is the real fear of pro-Russian separatists today? And while we hear about Russian oligarchs backing Putin, have we compared their offers to those Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who backs Zelensky, is offering the region? Kolomoisky, barred from entering the United States in 2021 due to corruption and “continued efforts to undermine Ukraine’s democratic processes and institutions”, was declared by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as ” pose a serious threat to [Ukraine’s] future”.
Sergiy’s colleagues continue their protests, “No one will invest in this.” “In the United States they don’t close their factories, you know,” says another, perhaps recalling Trump-era promises to boost manufacturing. “It could still be profitable,” adds an optimist, aware of the force that dictates success and failure in a NATO economy. “It’s possible,” replies another, “We just have to stop stealing.” “The metal is exported, and brings foreign currency to the budget,” says the optimist. “And we have to repay the debts that are greater than the GDP,” replies the cynic, “Our grandchildren will not be able to repay those debts.” “In two years it will be a desert here,” someone says. If this is liberation, it certainly doesn’t look like a victory…and not because the Russians haven’t yet paid for their crimes, but because the workers haven’t been paid the future they’re being paid. had promised.
“Are you happy that they are closing the factory? a man shouts, “Is that what you fought for?” Is that why you killed people? How many lives do you have on your conscience? “He was fighting to protect you! responds another. “Me? Did I ask you to protect me? Was my life bad? I had a job. Now I don’t. Fucking bastards!”
Sergiy finds a new job as a water supplier in desolate areas devoid of civilians. The roads are full of mines that will take decades to clear. Where there are no mines, there are corpses. This leads him to volunteer with Black Tulip, an organization that works to find and identify victims of war – Russians, Ukrainians, separatists. A foreigner representing an NGO visits him one day, warning him that his house has become uninhabitable: “Because of the war this territory has become completely uninhabitable”. Sergiy is hopeful. He fought for a new future, as the British boss of the factory had proposed. He knew things might have to “close for reconstruction” in the Donbass. “Everything will change, over time,” he says.
The foreigner disagrees: “Hundreds of mines flooded, factories destroyed? They polluted all the water. The changes are irreversible. A “brilliant” Ukraine, a “competitive” Ukraine, remains at the forefront in Sergiy’s mind. “Water can be delivered, distilled,” he says. “Yes, it is possible, but it is not profitable”, answers the foreigner. These are the ravages of war, of course. Yet there is another force here that no war could have stopped: the ravages of the marketplace. “So many years of war, just to leave?” Sergiy asks in disbelief. “It took you ten years to cleanse this territory of the poison of Soviet propaganda and myths. But now you have to clean the water and the ground. It will take decades, if not hundreds of years. So many toxins in this land from which generations had hoped to build their future… cleansed only once its inhabitants are completely eliminated.
Sergiy will not leave. There may be little victory to celebrate, but there is freedom in just staying. And freedom has a value of its own. He insists that leaving is useless: “It will be more difficult to live among ordinary people. You can not be wrong. Either you take yourself as you are, or you disappear. I agree with that. In fact, it’s a real reserve for people like us. This is perhaps the best consolation available, whether we are talking about Donbass or Ukraine as a whole. To live in a civilization overwhelmed not only by war but also by corruption, but to persist. Live at the whim of the oligarchs, but ensure that those you fight against are at least your own oligarchs.
In a symbolic scene, Sergiy is seen preparing a hot bath in an abandoned clamshell bucket. We see that Ukraine can move forward through the desolation it faces by relying on its most rudimentary skills. Even more telling are the pairings of scenes that end the film. There are two scenes on the roof, at the beginning with the working mill and at the end with the stationary mill. The first is disturbing, the second promising. Then there are the two thermographic scenes, putting us in a position to watch over the characters. In the first case, they smash a man’s head with the butt of a rifle and bury him. In the latter, they are lovers who discuss their place in the world. Maybe there’s something the friend with PTSD has figured out: maybe we really need to keep fighting.