Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

International Recognition and Relative Obscurity

Despite its immense contribution to Mikhail Kalatozov’s international acclaim, a fruitful collaboration marked by a unique fusion of poignant emotional storytelling and a visually arresting, untamed style, the partnership between the esteemed director and the lauded cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky was, in actuality, a remarkably concise one, encompassing a mere seven years and yielding only three films. On a global scale, two films, The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba, have received significant recognition. However, the third film, Letter Never Sent, remains less familiar to international audiences. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable depiction of unwavering determination in the face of insurmountable difficulties. Therefore, it is proof of the determination to never give up in the effort to conquer the wilderness and defeat the powerful forces of nature.

Urusevsky’s masterful black-and-white cinematography deserves particular commendation. With turbulent waters, strong winds, and fierce flames, the film juxtaposes vulnerable protagonists. It creates a narrative of visual amazement. In particular, his shooting shows a stylistic bridge between techniques in the works before and after the collaborative period. Carrying many important themes, Letter Never Sent displays a charming anomaly. Cleverly, the film functions as a thrilling adventure narrative, an extraordinary art exhibition, and a tribute to the power of collective effort. At the same time, it also functions as a subtle subversion of the ideals.

Urusevsky’s innovative spirit shone brightly in his work on The Cranes Are Flying, the first Soviet film to confront the emotional realities of World War II with unflinching honesty. Such groundbreaking production achieved remarkable success, culminating in its triumphant acquisition of the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. His pioneering vision would find even fuller expression in I Am Cuba, a cinematic celebration of the radical social transformation wrought by the Cuban Revolution in its nascent years. Letter Never Sent is a significant bridge between two important works. It’s not just cutting-edge engineering in The Cranes Are Flying. However, it also introduces several new approaches. With complex manipulations of focal length, camera angles and movements, and lighting, Urusevsky’s skill is evident in his pioneering use of handheld cameras.

On the surface, the narrative of Letter Never Sent bears a thematic resemblance to a counterpoint of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It chronicles the saga of four Soviet explorers venturing into the untamed Siberian wilderness in search of diamond deposits. Unlike the last film (an examination of humanity’s inherent weakness and deadly greed), the film illuminates the depths of the human spirit. While demonstrably adhering to the tenets of Socialist Realism, a prominent artistic movement emphasizing the portrayal of “Soviet values” such as selflessness, unwavering determination, and fervent political zeal—a product of the post-Stalinist Thaw under Khrushchev’s leadership—it offers a more nuanced perspective. A closer examination reveals that the film subtly conveys additional, perhaps even subversive, messages beyond its surface-level thematic articulation.

Drawing inspiration from a narrative conceived by Valeri Osipov and co-scripted by playwright Viktor Rozov, whose prior work included the acclaimed The Cranes Are Flying, Letter Never Sent can be conceptually and stylistically divided into two distinct sections. The first portion unfolds as a chronicle of exploration, meticulously depicting scenes of systematic fieldwork. It follows a group of four geologists—a trio of men accompanied by a lone woman—as they embark on a grueling expedition to unearth diamonds within the unforgiving wilderness of the Central Siberian Plateau. Finally, their perseverance resulted in finding a source of promising valuable stones.

The Thematic Core

The initial segment centers thematically on the titular unsent letter. The long letter written by Sabinin (the group leader) bridges the fragility between the protagonist’s isolation and the lived world. It functions as a confluence of diary entries and philosophical musings, with scenes of Sabinin composing the letter often intercut with ethereal visions of loving gazes and tender embraces bathed in the calming light of his domestic life back in the city. Additionally, images of flickering flames juxtapose the sequence. It refers to bonfires lighting the surrounding environment and signifies a fire disaster where it has not yet befallen them.

In addition to involving romantic entanglements, the secondary narrative thread appears in the form of another unsent letter. The subplot centers on a love triangle involving the young Tanya, her scholarly beau Andrei, and the more mature Sergei. Sergei harbors feelings for Tanya but chooses to suppress them. However, his secret accidentally revealed a private note. Despite never referring to a disclosure, the incident sparks a series of insightful exchanges exploring the complexities of love and socialist morality. Notably, it incorporates scenes that subtly hint at themes of sexual tension and erotic attraction, a rarity within the confines of Soviet cinema.

Kalatozov, a seasoned filmmaker, possessed a keen ability to navigate the often treacherous landscape of artistic expression within the constraints of Soviet ideology. Such talent is demonstrably evident in his earlier work, Nail in the Boot, a silent farce from 1931, which satirized the incompetence of a soldier inadvertently hindering the Russian war effort. Unfortunately, the film met with disapproval from the authorities, resulting in a seven-year suspension of Kalatozov’s creative endeavors. Returning to filmmaking with a newfound understanding of the system’s expectations, he meticulously crafted subsequent projects that extolled Soviet heroism, such as Wings of Victory and Hostile Whirlwinds.

Their jubilation over the successful expedition and the nascent preparations for their return to civilization is abruptly interrupted by the devastating arrival of a forest fire. The catastrophic event catalyzes the second narrative arc of Letter Never Sent, transforming the film into a harrowing tale of their desperate struggle for survival. It becomes an existential exploration of human vulnerability against the overwhelming power of nature. The four protagonists embark on a perilous journey that stretches for several days, traversing a flaming inferno. Their ordeal tragically claims the life of one and leaves another gravely injured. As communication with their base is severed, they find themselves utterly isolated, clinging to the fading hope of rescue by search parties.

The remainder of the film chronicles the arduous odyssey of the remaining survivors. They drag themselves through a succession of desolate landscapes—initially ravaged by fire, then transformed into a charred and rain-soaked wasteland, culminating in a frozen purgatory. Their unwavering determination to live fuels their perseverance. Their sole purpose is to keep a map revealing the location of their valuable discovery; it symbolizes a future full of prosperity for humanity.

Kalatozov’s Artistic Evolution

The cultural thaw initiated in the aftermath of Stalin’s death in 1956 ushered in a period of relative artistic liberation in Russia. Narrative structures could now explore the complexities of individual characters, transcending the limitations of stereotypical portrayals. The story allows an artist to a certain degree. Therefore, it allows for ambiguity and the expression of veiled differences of opinion. Certainly, Kalatozov’s access significantly shaped his artistic sensibilities toward Western cinema during his service in World War II as a cultural attaché in Washington. The exposure to non-Soviet filmmaking techniques, an opportunity afforded to very few Russian filmmakers of his era, undoubtedly proved invaluable. The final three films within Kalatozov’s filmography that explore Communist themes represent his artistic culmination. Here, he finally shatters the restrictive confines of the official “idealnost” style, invigorating his cinema with a dynamic, unfettered camera, the exploration of ambitious and complex narratives, and the courage to explore nuanced and thought-provoking ideas.

The portrayal within Letter Never Sent of such selfless acts of heroism undertaken for the collective advancement of humanity aligns the film, to a certain extent, with the tenets of Socialist Realism. The stylistic movement emphasized the inherent connection between artistic expression and Soviet ideology, as embodied by the principle of ideinost. The film adheres to the 1934 definition of Socialist Realism articulated by Maxim Gorky, which placed significant value on the cultivation of individual capabilities “for his triumph over the powers of nature.” The moral ascent is particularly evident in Sabinin’s hallucination near the film’s concluding moments. As he lies delirious and close to succumbing to the elements, he experiences a vision: a future bathed in glorious sunshine, a testament to the progress facilitated by the group’s discovery. Such a utopian scene depicts a massive construction project on the river, symbolizing the inspiring socialist ideal of cultivating the land, replete with colossal machinery and industrious laborers.

Kalatozov’s prior filmography demonstrates a history of employing the thematic framework. Works such as Wings of Victory, a biographical portrayal of Arctic explorer Valery Chkalov, and Hostile Whirlwinds, which chronicles the life of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB, all fall neatly within the parameters of Socialist Realism. Additionally, The First Echelon, a saga exploring the cultivation of virgin soil in Kazakhstan, stands as the inaugural project where Kalatozov collaborated with Urusevsky. It was fellow cameraman Yuri Yekelchik who brought Urusevsky onto the production.

Recognition and Revisitation

Kalatov’s artistic contributions were recognized in 1951 when he received the Stalin Prize, awarded at the zenith of the Soviet leader’s cult of personality. Later, he revisited Socialist Realism with I Am Cuba. It is a film celebrating the victory of a working-class protagonist. Indeed, we acknowledge the invaluable contribution of Urusevsky. Their collaboration not only produces striking compositions and extraordinary manipulations of light. However, it is also carefully choreographed in long but unbroken shots. Such an approach directly challenged the prevailing Kuleshov effect, a prominent cinematic theory that posited editing choices as the primary driver of context, feeling, and audience response.

However, Letter Never Sent also exhibits elements that deviate from the established conventions of Socialist Realism. Aside from the unexpected natural disaster triggering it, the film’s dramatic turning point contrasts sharply with the narrative arc of more typical Socialist Realism. Often, it relies on internal conflict and increasing tension between characters. The film’s grim conclusion, which sees three out of the four protagonists perish, represents a significant departure from the optimistic tone typically associated with Socialist Realism. The narrative even indulges in a subtle satire of Soviet bureaucracy. It is particularly evident in the scene where the congratulations broadcasted over the radio by the scientists’ superiors clash with the harsh reality of their desperate struggle for survival, creating a poignant dissonance.

By abandoning the static compositions facilitated by tripods and opting for dynamic, extended takes that meticulously track his characters’ movements, Kalatozov adopts a bold stylistic choice. It compels the viewer to actively engage with the unfolding events on screen and form their interpretations. Fully expanded shooting empowers the actors to embody their characters’ emotional journeys. Seamlessly, it allows them to depict the evolution of thoughts and feelings over time. Notably, it ultimately proves highly successful. When we look from a historical perspective, Kalatozov’s innovative use of long but unbroken shots influenced the subsequent cinematic movement. Filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky and others readily embraced and further developed the groundbreaking technique.

Epic Struggles with Nature

Kalatozov’s filmography demonstrates a persistent fascination with the epic struggle between humanity and the raw power of nature. It is evident even in his early work, the Georgian-language ethnographic film Salt for Svanetia, which chronicles the lives of a remote mountain village and their constant battle against the harsh environment. The motif is further explored in Wings of Victory, reinforcing Kalatozov’s enduring interest in such narratives.

It culminated in his final film, the 1969 international co-production The Red Tent. The lavish Technicolor production, filmed by cinematographer Leonid Kalashnikov and featuring a star-studded cast including Sean Connery and Claudia Cardinale, recounted the tragic 1928 Arctic expedition led by Umberto Nobile. Despite having a bigger budget and visual spectacle, The Red Tent shares thematic similarities with Letter Never Sent. Both films depict protagonists facing death through no fault of their own. However, both offer a glimmer of hope in redemption through a purpose.

However, The Red Tent ultimately fails to match the earlier film’s visual intensity. Each frame in Letter Never Sent serves a multitude of purposes. It propels the narrative forward, resonates with deeper metaphorical meaning, and simultaneously establishes its aesthetic merit as a striking visual composition. Under the repressive Stalinist regime, they would denounce the style’s emphasis on visual beauty as “formalism.” It’s a self-indulgent bourgeois concept and has no social purpose. Fortunately, the recent loosening of ideological constraints allowed Kalatozov to embrace the unbridled joy of filmmaking.

Stark Cinematography and Silent Narrative

The film’s stark black-and-white cinematography compels the viewer’s attention to form, mass, movement, and the raw emotions conveyed. The visual language is so strong that the film can almost function as a silent narrative. Regardless of conveying the character’s struggles and the power of nature, the film only relies on uploaded images. The opening five minutes of Letter Never Sent serve as a masterclass in Urusevsky’s virtuosic cinematography. Such initial sequence unfolds through a series of five extended takes, each exceeding thirty seconds in duration. They stand as a testament to Urusevsky’s exceptional visual storytelling skills.

The inaugural shot commences with the camera executing an upward and outward movement. It depicts the group of geologists from the perspective of the departing helicopter that has delivered them to their remote destination. Initially, the details of their faces are discernible; however, as the helicopter ascends, the figures gradually diminish in size until they resemble mere dots within the vast landscape. The third shot within the sequence portrays the geologists navigating the dense woods in disorientation. It exemplifies Urusevsky’s masterful use of the handheld camera. It employs a captivating choreography, with the camera fluidly turning and following the protagonists’ meandering exploration, alternately approaching and receding from the actors.

It’s worth noting, however, that a slight incongruity exists between the film’s opening narrative crawl and the subsequent visual language. While the text presents the film as a tribute to the brave, aligning it with the Soviet hero-tale genre, the opening shot adopts a different approach. Here, we witness a vertiginous helicopter shot as the four lead characters wave enthusiastically toward the departing helicopter that has deposited them on the edge of the wilderness. The shot lingers until the figures are dwarfed by the surrounding landscape, eventually vanishing entirely from view.

Urusevsky’s camerawork throughout Letter Never Sent exhibits a meticulous and almost intrusive focus on the protagonists’ faces. He employs extreme close-up shots, often capturing them in profile, to scrutinize their every expression. However, the representation of nature within the film emerges as an equally significant character, its portrayal as captivating as the acting itself. The images of the landscape linger in the viewer’s memory long after the credits roll. Each natural element—earth, water, air, and fire—is prominently featured, playing an instrumental role in propelling the narrative forward. Despite the superior footage on location integrating seamlessly with the film, they shot less exciting scenes inside the Mosfilm studio. Studio-shot sequences are readily identifiable due to their static backgrounds.

However, some studio scenes also demonstrate Urusevsky’s technical expertise. A notable example is a sequence featuring Tanya and Andrei seeking shelter from the rain. Their meeting with Sergei culminates in a complex confrontation. Everyone follows the choreography in a studio setting. The three actors deliver exceptional performances, navigating intricate movements across the screen.

Elaborate Location Shots

Undoubtedly, the most remarkable and enduring aspects of the film’s visual presentation are the elaborate location shots. One particularly arresting sequence lingers in the viewer’s mind long after the film’s conclusion. While clocking in at just over two minutes, the shot depicts Andrei and Sergei traversing a sun-drenched jungle area during a hunting expedition. Fast and unpredictable camera movements characterize the scene. It is alternating vertical and horizontal tracking shots rewind suddenly and jerkily during tense exchanges between the two characters.

On the surface, the quartet appears to be a quintessential team assembled for an adventure film. There’s Sergei, the robust guide; Tanya and Andrei, the geological experts and romantic couple; and Sabinin, the wise and level-headed team leader. Sabinin’s lengthy, unfinished letter to his wife serves a dual purpose: a narrative device and a window into his inner world. His wife appears twice within the film, in dreamlike sequences—one a manifestation of memory, the other a hallucinatory vision.

Instead of relying on conventional editing techniques, extended takes prioritize meticulous choreography. The camerawork often incorporates natural obstructions—branches, flames, or bodies of water—that seemingly appear inadvertently within the frame, separating the camera and the actors. Occurrences necessitate the camera, and consequently, the viewer’s gaze, to adjust and observe from a fresh perspective. Some moments may not be that important in moving the narrative forward. The moments we can view as captivating exercises in complex yet sophisticated staging.

Shifts in Visual Portrayal

Criticisms emerged following the release of I Am Cuba, a film that pushes it to its absolute limits, accusing Urusevsky and Kalatozov of prioritizing form over substance. Accusations perhaps hold a degree of merit. However, one cannot deny the sheer brilliance of the film’s cinematography! From the outset, the four protagonists find themselves immersed in the raw power of the natural world. Initially, the majestic backdrop presents the landscape. It’s a stunning setting in heroic action. However, as their spring expedition stretches into summer and then fall, the visual portrayal of the environment undergoes a shift. The characters no longer match the vastness of the landscape. In it, they are in a trap. It is particularly evident in scenes where they find themselves at the bottom of exploratory trenches, visuals that bear an unsettling resemblance to mass graves.

Kalatozov and Urusevsky repeatedly employ long lenses to capture the explorers in profile, positioning them against the backdrop of a setting sun. It has two purposes. First, it attempts to maintain a sense of epic grandeur. Second, it imbues a character with an anonymous yet almost mystical stature. However, the stylistic choices contrast sharply with the growing frustration with their unfulfilled mission. Therefore, it creates a sense of dissonance for the viewer. The characters themselves harbor optimistic beliefs about the potential impact of their discovery. They speculate that finding the diamonds will trigger a full-blown industrial revolution. Tatiana, for example, expresses her fervent hope with a cheerful declaration: “We’ll find them, and we’ll be happy for the rest of our lives!

We can interpret most visual imagery as engaging in direct dialogue with other classic Soviet films. The stark silhouettes of the geologists traversing the landscape—filing across the screen against a dramatic sky, beneath a foreboding sun, or amidst charred trees—evoke a sense of déjà vu, reminiscent of scenes from Lev Kuleshov’s groundbreaking 1926 film By the Law. Likewise, Sabinin’s vision of a utopian future resembles the closing sequence of Alexander Dovzhenko’s Aerograd. Additionally, the scene featuring Tanya impulsively wasting the remaining rifle bullets echoes a moment of desperation similar to Grigori Chukhrai’s The Forty-First.

Aesthetic Kinship

It is worth noting that while Kalatozov and Urusevsky could not have possibly seen Masaki Kobayashi’s epic trilogy The Human Condition, a work produced concurrently with Letter Never Sent, the desolate landscapes depicted in the film’s latter sections, particularly those showcasing Tanya and Sabinin, share a distinct aesthetic kinship. The narrative introduces another “unsent letter,” penned by Sergei and addressed to Tatiana. The discovery of the letter by Tanya and Andrei in the riverbed throws Sergei’s emotional state into disarray. Despite his initial denials, the letter’s contents reveal his suppressed feelings of love for Tanya, a love he acknowledges will remain unrequited due to her affection for Andrei. Unfinished romantic entanglements further erode the team’s initial sense of solidarity. Visually, the frequent use of the Dutch point of view emphasizes the film. It creates a feeling of discomfort and instability.

On a symbolic level, the sound of Sergei’s pickaxe continuously strikes the earth. We can interpret it as an auditory manifestation of his repressed emotions. It was a heartbeat that didn’t stop echoing his internal turmoil. Only the accidental discovery of a diamond can calm the emotional turmoil brewing for a while. The subsequent scene depicts Andrei and Tatiana racing through the autumnal woods, their joyous shouts proclaiming their success. The camera, mirroring their unrestrained exhilaration, sweeps alongside them in a euphoric lateral motion, a visual sublimation of a more primal, celebratory urge. Ultimately, the film suggests that reason and intellect may prevail over emotional desires, but only by a narrow margin.

Tarkovsky’s directorial debut, The Steamroller and the Violin, premiered in the year following the release of Letter Never Sent. However, Tarkovsky’s next film, Ivan’s Childhood, provides the most convincing evidence of Urusevsky’s influence on his cinematography. The influences embody a variety of visual elements like shimmering water reflections, piercing sunlight, a sexually charged scene taking place near a ditch, and footage of characters navigating shallow water and snare branches.

Isolation and Communication

The meticulously planned, continuously moving camerawork that establishes the film’s distinctive rhythm owes a significant debt to Urusevsky’s pioneering techniques. It would become a recurring motif throughout Tarkovsky’s filmography and would continue to exert a lasting influence on the cinematic landscape. The sole conduit connecting the isolated team to the external world is a two-way radio. It allows them to transmit news of their discovery back to their base camp. However, A massive forest fire suddenly shattered their joy. Therefore, they decided on their return route. Then, the merciless elements systematically claim the protagonists’ lives. Coincidentally, the radio simultaneously stopped transmitting their communications with a touch of cruel irony.

Even though their pleas for help went unanswered, they received the transmission; they heard a flood of hyperbolic and formulaic praise from the lower classes. As a result, they celebrate their achievements. The statement has a haunting quality; it resembles a premature eulogy for a doomed protagonist. Letter Never Sent garnered international recognition, receiving a Palme d’Or nomination at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and securing a global release. However, it has never reached lasting fame like its predecessor. Conversely, within the Soviet Union, the film resonated deeply with an entire generation. Its romanticized portrayal of the lives of geologists significantly contributed to a surge in interest in the field.

Despite the critical acclaim for the film’s portrayal of dedicated scientists, some reviewers expressed concerns regarding the underdeveloped characters and the tenuous connection between the film’s romantic and realistic elements. The recent re-release in Russia ignited a wave of critical discourse. While viewers lauded the film’s breathtaking cinematography, some found fault with its lack of realism and questioned the purpose behind the somewhat gratuitous heroism—the necessity for the protagonists to perish during a period of peace.

As the protagonists’ arduous journey progresses, the mood conveyed through the extended tracking shots grows bleak. The characters trudge and struggle, seemingly trapped within a stark, skeletal landscape of bare trees and brush devoid of foliage. The frantic search by torchlight on a stormy night evokes a sense of Shakespearean tragedy. It is reminiscent of King Lear’s descent into madness. Furthermore, deliberate close-ups emphasize the chiseled faces of the protagonists. Artistically, the makeup dirt suppresses it. As they lifted their faces to the sky, they uttered a heroic statement of hope that read, “No to weakness, no to cowardice, no to despair.” In their unwavering positive attitude, the strangeness becomes very clear. The harsh realities of their situation are laid bare: individuals succumb to the elements, their bodies left behind, and equipment discarded. Yet, the remaining survivors press on, fueled by a dwindling flicker of hope.

Letter Never Sent is praised for its magnetic allure and captivating visual storytelling, making it a master class in film history. Despite its narrative shortcomings, the film’s gloom and despair visually subvert its intended ideological message, particularly as it reaches a conclusion devoid of personal salvation. The distorted portrayal of rampant industrial progress and a weak, laughable ending further weaken the overall message. The final moments mirror the opening shot, but instead of promising adventure, they emphasize the futility of the characters’ struggle and the hollowness of their supposed triumph through a stark visual metaphor of an endless expanse of nothingness.


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