Inventive, slickly made Russian mockumentary “First People on the Moon” seamlessly mixes real archive footage with fake to tell ersatz “secret” story about Russkie cosmonauts beating the U.S. by 30 years to be the first in space. Pic generates laughs expected from the mock-doc format, especially by sending up Glorious Revolutionary film style, but tone dwells more on the dark side, telling the story of heroes who become victims of Stalin-era oppression with a tragic gravity. Debut for helmer Alexei Fedorchenko could make short orbit round the fest circuit, with possible splashdown landings as a niche release in select territories.
Pic purports to offer an account of how a team of five cosmonauts were trained in the late 1930s to be the first people in space, propelled toward the stars by nascent rocket technology that resulted in a 1938 moon landing.
Styled to look like a low-budget TV docu (pic’s real budget is alleged to be in the region of $1 million), voiceover explains plausibly that film’s revelations have been made possible now because of the opening up of secret film archives once held by the NKVD (precursor of the KGB and today’s FSB).
This means “First” is made up of three kinds of material: authentic black-and-white archive footage from old Soviet newsreels of parades and happy workers; fake newsreel and covert surveillance shots, the latter supposedly filmed on tiny spy cameras recording the cosmonauts in training; and full-color linking material purportedly shot by a contempo crew investigating the cosmonauts’ story by interviewing the one surviving member, Central Asian Fatlakhov (played by Alexei Slavnin) and others more tangentially connected to the events recounted.
Even though the fake footage showing the cosmonauts is largely silent (a simple, non-source score adds atmosphere), Fedorchenko manages through clever counterpoint to flesh their characters out — the model soldier Kharlamov (Boris Vlasov), the strong-jawed woman athlete (Victoria Ilyinskaya), the circus dwarf (Victor Kotov). Adding a creepy ballast, the fake surveillance shots show the cosmonauts’ private fears and anxieties, which were more than justified given that one chilling sequence shows a clinically executed assassination of one of the “heroes” after the program has been dismantled.
Humor and menace rub against each other here constantly. While Western auds may chuckle at the deftly executed mimicry of Soviet kitsch, viewers from Eastern Europe will feel the darker undertow and will be more aware of the State-sponsored paranoia and terrors of the era. Nevertheless, Fedorchenko conjures a muted sense of nostalgia for a passing generation and the irrevocably lost ways of an empire built on idealism as much as fear.
Somehow fittingly, story loses focus in final reels as the surviving cosmonauts end their days ignominiously.
Counterfeiting of archive material is pro, with lenser Anatoly Lesnikov getting the grainy sheen of old B&W stock just right while post-production work inserts scratches and tears judiciously throughout.