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Something New Under the ‘Sky’

How Liquid Sky director Slava Tsukerman went from being a Jewish kid shut out of film school in Russia to creating a sci-fi cult classic

Wayne Hoffman
April 12, 2018
(Photo © Cinevicinity)Liquid Sky
Anne Carlisle and Anne Carlisle.(Photo © Cinevicinity)(Photo © Cinevicinity)Liquid Sky
(Photo © Cinevicinity)Liquid Sky
Anne Carlisle and Anne Carlisle.(Photo © Cinevicinity)(Photo © Cinevicinity)Liquid Sky

Last May, at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan, film director Slava Tsukerman presented a special screening of his 1982 cult classic Liquid Sky, a post-punk sci-fi sex comedy. (“My films never belong to any genre,” Tsukerman explained to me in an interview last week.) The 35mm film being shown was his own print, which he described as “very close to falling apart,” and that evening would mark its last public viewing.

On April 13, the Quad will host another special screening: the premiere of the new 4K restoration of Liquid Sky. “I always wanted to digitize the film,” he told me, “because it’s the only way to save it for the future.”

Slava Tsukerman, Nina V. Kerova & Anne Carlisle with fans. (Photo courtesy Cinevicinity)
Slava Tsukerman, Nina V. Kerova & Anne Carlisle with fans. (Photo courtesy Cinevicinity)

Liquid Sky is about punks, queers, and drug users in New York City—outsiders living on the fringe of mainstream culture. Tsukerman learned first-hand about being an outsider at a young age, growing up as a Jew in Moscow in the 1940s and ’50s. Being Jewish, for him, wasn’t about being religious. “At a certain age, you realize you are Jewish because other kids call you Jewish, and they beat you up,” he said. He wanted to make movies from the time he was a small boy, but being Jewish almost derailed him. The only film school in Russia wasn’t accepting Jewish applicants, so after high school, Tsukerman instead trained to be a civil engineer and an architect.

It was only later, when amateur filmmaking took off during the Khrushchev era, that he got his first break. At 21, he wrote, directed, and produced a short film called I Believe in Spring, a love story that took the top prize in the first Moscow Amateur Film Festival and then secured a theatrical release. It was, in essence, the country’s first independent film. “Even Pravda was writing about me, which was better than any Oscar in Russia,” he said. “It was the first time a director with a very Jewish name was reviewed in Pravda.”

With that recognition, he was belatedly admitted to film school. Still, he didn’t have a future as a filmmaker in the Soviet Union. “I realized that in order to make feature films in Russia, I needed to do two things: change my name from something Jewish to something else, and become a member of the Communist Party,” he said. Tsukerman wasn’t willing to do either thing, so when Jewish immigration opened up in the 1970s, he and his wife—screenwriter Nina Kerova—made aliyah in 1973. A few months after immigrating, Tsukerman was approached by the head of the documentary division of Israeli Television about making a documentary about the Russian Orthodox Church. “I said, ‘I left Russia—I want to make films about Jewish subjects.’ But he said, ‘You don’t know anything about Jewish subjects. So do this, or nothing.’” Tsukerman made the documentary, Once Upon a Time There Were Russians in Jerusalem, which was a critical and popular hit; Maariv called him “the best film director on Israeli television.”

He moved to New York in 1976. “I had this idea that New York City is the best place for a filmmaker to start, which was absolutely right,” he told me. “I loved New York City because it was the intellectual center of the world.”

His first few film projects in New York failed to materialize. But while he was working on a project called Sweet Sixteen—a sci-fi movie about a girl who dies in an accident, only to have her mad scientist father save her head and attach it to a mechanical body—he befriended film editor and acting coach Bob Brady, who introduced Tsukerman to one of his acting students, Anne Carlisle. When Sweet Sixteen fell apart, Tsukerman started work on a new script. “Bob and his students, Anne among them, felt it should be a film about a small UFO,” he said. “I decided that Anne Carlisle, a New Wave fashion model, would be exactly the right girl to have a relationship with an alien from outer space.”

Carlisle became friends with Tsukerman and his wife—who was, at the time, writing a script about a woman who couldn’t have an orgasm. Carlisle moved in with the couple to help with Kerova’s script. While they were all living together, Tsukerman said, he heard many discussions about orgasms and feminism, and decided that orgasms should be part of his story about the alien. So all three of them started to collaborate, and co-wrote what would become Liquid Sky: a story about an androgynous fashion model who is abused, beaten, and raped by a series of men and women, before falling in love with the murderous alien who has killed all of her attackers.

Carlisle plays Margaret, the lead female role—but she also plays Margaret’s nemesis and modeling rival Jimmy, the lead male role; Brady, her real-life acting teacher, plays her acting teacher in the movie as well. There are a series of subplots to flesh out the movie: an earnest German scientist researching the aliens and a flirtatious Jewish woman who tries to distract him from his work; a would-be artist whose heroin addiction keeps him from achieving anything; a drug-dealing performance artist—and Margaret’s foul-mouthed lover—who fantasizes about making her dreams come true in Berlin; and the alien, who is never seen or heard, who lives in a dinner-plate-sized UFO on the roof of Margaret’s apartment, sniffing around for opiates—or people having orgasms.

In short, it’s a story about America. And orgasms that kill.

“I wanted, artistically, to put sex and drugs together,” said Tsukerman. The notion of underground subcultures in New York City where sex and drugs would lead to mysterious deaths seemed exactly on target when Liquid Sky was released in 1982, barely a year after AIDS made headlines for the first time (and before the disease had even been named). But this seeming prescience was coincidental: “I was completely surprised when AIDS happened,” said Tsukerman, noting that work on the film began long before those headlines appeared. “I didn’t know it would happen that way.”

Since Liquid Sky, Tsukerman has worked on a series of movies with Russian themes, including the documentary Stalin’s Wife, and the feature films Poor Liza and Perestroika. But now, he’s come back to the movie that made him famous, and he may once again prove prescient about capturing the cultural Zeitgeist. “We are now working with Anne Carlisle on a script for Liquid Sky 2,” he told me. “It’s very much about the abuse of women.” It dovetails nicely, he says, with the current #MeToo moment, but he notes, again, “We started writing the script before this big campaign happened.”

Wayne Hoffman is executive editor of Tablet Magazine.