‘Letter Never Sent’: An Elegiac Survival Tale with Marvelous Visual Style
By Arun Kumar
Mikhail Kalatozov is one of the many lesser-celebrated Soviet Union film-makers whose dazzling artistry was set in motion from the silent era to early 1970s. Mr. Kalatozov has made quite a few popular entertainment works in the old Soviet Union, although his glorious aesthetic sense was thought to have failed to highly esteem the nation’s socialist ideals. The director’s 1931 silent movie The Nail in the Boot (Lursmani cheqmashi) ran into trouble with the censors. As a result he stayed away from film-making for seven years. Later, Mikhail Kalatozov’s collaboration with proficient cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky gave us three beautifully shot films ever made (after Stalin’s demise). The Cranes are Flying (1957) and I Am Cuba (1964) were hugely popular with international cinephiles with the former winning Palme d’Or at 1958 Cannes. Even though Kalatozov’s adventure drama, Letter Never Sent (Neotpravlennoye pismo, 1960), gained only sparse international acclaim, it is nevertheless an extraordinary work whose ebullient, kinetic imagery broadened the reach of its thin, simple story.
Letter Never Sent is a man vs nature drama set in the dense woods of Siberian plateau. It’s one of those survival films, bedecked with philosophical rumination, mislaid ambition, and emotional devastation. This maddening on-screen endeavor that precedes Aguire’s expedition in Peru (Aguirre, Wrath of God), and Captain Willard’s journey in the jungles of Vietnam, in search of Colonel Kurtz (Apocalypse Now), perfectly showcases the battle between human will and unforgiving natural world. From Andrei Tarkovsky to Francis Ford Coppola to Rian Johnson, Kalatozov’s imaginative staging in Letter Never Sent have been the primary influence for generations of film-makers.
Four Soviet expedition members disembark at the shores of Taiga River and enter the Siberian Wilderness in the opening shot. The camera is placed on the helicopter and as it gradually takes off the four people are reduced to dots in the untamed, sprawling, primeval landscape. Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky) leads the party. Their task is to tirelessly test the soil in the area, in the hope of finding the long-rumored diamond deposits. The country is alleged to be on the verge of a great technical, economic breakthrough and unearthing diamonds could very well support their ambitious socialist ideals. But to get to the riches withheld by Mother Earth, the four toil in the perilous land. Sabinin, the skilled geologist with steely resolve, has previously searched the area in three expeditions, only to have returned empty. He writes a long letter to his beloved wife Vera (Galina Kozhakina), which is also a personal reflection about the expedition’s work (the letter is ‘Malickian’ in its content; may be Malick was inspired by this film to have created Pvt. Bell character in The Thin Red Line).
Assisting Sabinin are the enthusiastic, post-World War II innocuous youths – Andrei (Vasili Livanov) and Tanya (Tatyana Samoilova). The young couple is head-over-heels in love and hopes to marry as soon as they return to Moscow. The fourth member is the gruff, muscular Sergei (Yevgeni Urbansky), the expedition’s guide. Sergei also has feelings for the effervescent Tanya, who is exactly the opposite of Andrei. One is an academic intellectual, while the other is an earthy guy whose actions are instinctual. Sergei considers Andrei a weakling, and hence has altercation with him earlier. Tanya is well-aware of Sergei’s feelings of unrequited love, but calmly dismisses his advances. The robust chemistry between Andrei and Tanya, and prevalent sexual tension between Tanya and Sergei brought to mind the visceral qualities of Roman Polanski’s cinema (which often explored unresolved sexual tension, although I have to remind myself that this was made two years before Polanski made his directorial debut). Eventually, the restless search provides the first positive results: Tanya finds a small fragment of diamond. Long before their celebratory mood wanes, the group awakens to a deadly forest fire. The four grab what they can and run amidst acres of towering trees set ablaze. The terrain only becomes more unforgiving from then on, as they endure fire, wind, snow (recurrent visual motifs), and occasionally cleansed by the hope-inducing rain. Nevertheless, Kalatozov’s observation of this devastating tale of survival is constantly foreshadowed with unbelievably beautiful and meditative shots.
The story and script (Grigori Koltunov, Valeri Osipov, and Viktor Rozov) here are rudimentary. The efforts taken to characterize the love-triangle may make us think that it would serve as pivotal element in the later-half. But Mikhail Kalatozov casually sets aside this plot-line and channels his vision to construct highly stylized visuals of the hellish landscape. That is not to say that the script entirely lacks redeeming aspects. The core of Letter Never Sent reflects the socialist ideal of heroic individuals sacrificing their dreams and life to advance the magnificent goals of the Revolution (despite de-Stalinization, the censors scoured the films for ‘decadent’ capitalistic ideals). However, the trio of screenwriters subtly prods at the State, especially when the excited party member incessantly congratulates the expedition members on their success, while they unable to talk back frustratingly listen and confront death. But the film’s continuing international acclaim has to do more with spectacular visual design than the story dynamics.
Kalatozov and cinematographer Urushevsky collaboration is as great as the renowned partnerships between Tarkovsky and Yusov, Bergman and Nykvist, Powell and Cardiff, Godard and Coutard, etc. The duo’s visual wizardry in The Cranes are Flying (1957) involved complex long takes and exquisite traditional shots. For Letter Never Sent, they have designed a more kinetic mise-en-scene, full of hand-held shots and deep, unbroken close-ups that try to reflect the characters’ existential disquietude (in I Am Cuba their visual flourishes are more shocking and astonishing; however during the film’s release the aesthetic exercise was considered useless because it didn’t exactly serve its propaganda role). Right from the initial shot when the helicopter backs away from the four, Kalatozov-Urushevsky’s imagery boasts fantastic level of details, capturing the intimidating beauty of the smoldering Siberian taiga with mercurial energy. The hand-held shots bustle with activity, as it perfectly move in tandem with the group, dodging through thicket of twigs and saplings. The purgatorial, scorching landscape of blackened trees works both as a great artistic expression and a reflection of the harsh reality. In the early scenes, when the four involve themselves in back-breaking work, Kalatozov uses a superb montage sequence, whose frames are decorated with flames to symbolize the ardent passion that drives these diverse individuals. Later, when the flickering flames become literal, it closely turns into a sign of hopelessness and failure. Kalatazov sporadically breathes relief into the desolation: for example, the rain plus the shot of serene Tanya enjoying the rainwater pouring over her or the resplendent close-up shots of Tanya and Sabinin set against night-time sky as they ruminate over ‘thoughts’.
The question of what happens to the suffering members of the calamities never becomes a big concern (the title itself conveys a bit about the ending) and we stop worrying about the fate of lovers (although deep inside I rooted for Tatyana Samoilova’s Tanya to survive). After the 38 minute mark, Kalatozov fully frees himself from certain narrative restraints and jumps headlong into his extravagant visual flourishes. The feigned attempt at establishing character dynamics in this later part is clearly towered over by the compelling exhibition of the chaotic nature. In the end, the unparalleled, collective imagination of Kalatozov and Urushevsky makes Letter Never Sent (96 minutes) a virtuoso piece of wilderness film-making. Time and again, film-makers have pitted resilient human condition against the dark forces of nature, but nobody has impeccably reproduced the sheer visual aesthetics of Mikhail Kalatozov.
Arun Kumar is a Software professional with an unbridled passion for the world of cinema and books. He believes in an enriching film culture – from watching great cinema to engaging with its connoisseurs. Currently, he blogs at Passion for Moviesand Passion for Books.
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