Notes from Underground


by Tuna

Notes from Underground is an modern-day adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novella, which consists of diary notes from a disenfranchised, self-loathing man who admits from the beginning that he is sick, dysfunctional and not very nice. Every time something threatens to go well in his life, he opens his mouth and screws it up. We had a saying in the Navy, "He could screw up a wet dream." That's Underground Man.

Yessir, ol' Fyodor Dostoyevsky really knew how to have a good time. What a loveable, laugh-a-minute rascal he must have been. If he had come a few years later in Russian history, he would have been the life of the Communist Party. There has to be a Yakov Smirnov joke in there somewhere. "In America you bring life to party, but in Soviet Russia, Party drains life from you."

The first challenge the filmmakers faced in adapting the story was to figure out a new gimmick for "Underground Man" to use for communication. Clearly, you can't make a film where someone just writes introspective stuff into a diary. They hit on a reasonable solution, that of turning the diary into a video diary. The second problem was that the source material is full of specific commentary on Russian politics, philosophy and art which wouldn't translate well to the English-speaking world of today, so the scenarist stuck to the first and last chapters, which allowed him to tell a story with an arc.


Underground Man is a petty bureaucrat in charge of approving building plans in the building department at city hall, a function which he enjoys because he has power. He doesn't often mix socially, but has one college friend who doesn't openly despise him, and he sometimes visits. On this particular day, two other mutual schoolmates are there, and are planning a going-away party for yet another. Undie invites himself to the party, despite the facts that (1) he can't afford his share of the cost and; (2) he never even liked the guest of honor to begin with. He is completely embarrassed at the party, and makes a fool of himself. The others leave him and head to a whorehouse. He follows with the idea of smashing their faces in, but gets distracted and ends up in bed with hooker Sheryl Lee, who is a breath of fresh air in what is otherwise a terribly dark and depressing work. After the sex, he browbeats her about how dangerous and self-destructive her lifestyle is, then gives her his card and offers to take her away from her current life. He gets through to her then leaves. His greatest hope and his greatest fear is that she will show up at his dingy basement apartment. When she does, he screws that up too.

End Spoilers

The DVD is given the full treatment, including two commentaries, critical essays, slide shows and more. Most of the experts agree that the film captures the spirit of the source material, and demonstrates that not only was Dostoyevsky correct about the existence of an Underground Man in his society, but that Underground Man still exists today. One of the full-length commentaries is from a professor of comparative literature.

I found it rather slow going, and it is way too depressing for my taste. Your mileage may vary.

Commentary by Director Gary Walkow, Actor Henry Czerny and Editor Peter Ellis

Commentary by Professor Joseph Frank (Princeton University)

Lecture commentary with slide imagery by Professor Joseph Frank (Princeton University)

Original critical essay by Professor Deborah Martinsen (Columbia University)

Photo Gallery


It was nominated for an Oscar for cinematography.

  Variety (of 100)


7.2 IMDB summary (of 10)


Box Office Mojo. Released 11/29/1996. No details available.



  • Sheryl Lee - breasts


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Excellent, but only recommended for a very limited audience of Russian literature fans, who need to see this, but  probably already have.