This article appeared in the September 23 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

In 2016, an Icelandic fishing trawler brought up four reels of muck-covered film from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The find was tailor-made for Bill Morrison, the poet laureate of distressed celluloid, who that same year released Dawson City: Frozen Time, an enthralling cinematic essay about a cache of silent movies unearthed from the Yukon’s permafrost. In this case, the waterlogged reels proved to be no lost masterpiece, but a popular, though critically derided, Soviet film called The Village Detective (1969), a vehicle for the prolific actor Mikhail Zharov. Weaving the literally dredged-up footage together with a survey of Zharov’s six-decade career, Morrison constructs a meditation on mortality, Soviet history, the search for lost things, and the persistence of accordions.

Morrison’s films are inspired by the paradox of celluloid, at once fragile and durable. Like Decasia (2002), this latest work savors the mesmerizing psychedelia of nitrate decomposition: the fluid, ever-changing play of lines, blobs, stipples, branching or feathery patterns, and forked-lightning crackles. Images emerge from a swirling thicket of decay; people come to life again. In clips, we watch Zharov age from a teenager to an old man, and see Lenin cuddling a cat. In the end, the images vanish as if into a blizzard, and for a long time we watch the dancing ghosts of damaged emulsion. The film’s stark, haunting score by David Lang, written for a single accordion, cleverly incorporates the sound of air filling the instrument, like the breathing of a diver far down in the depths.

Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. She has written for The Criterion Collection and elsewhere, and wrote the Phantom Light column for FilmComment.