January 7, 2013

7 Letter Never Sent (1960)

Country: Russia
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov

A few years ago, when I was trying to catch up on some of the important foreign language films of the 1950s and 1960s that I had never seen, one of the films I watched which impressed me the most was a 1957 Russian film that received the Palme d'Or at Cannes, The Cranes Are Flying, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. The film was an astounding visual feat, presenting its complex, novelistic story set during the Second World War in a way that combined visual formalism with some of the visual fervor later found in films of the French New Wave. When I saw that last year Criterion had released Letter Never Sent (1960), Kalatozov's follow-up to Cranes, I knew I had to see it. While not the masterpiece that earlier film is, Letter is still an extraordinary film which tells its stripped-down story in a series of glorious images you're not likely to forget anytime soon.

The film opens with four people being deposited by helicopter in a remote region of Siberia. They are members of a geological expedition surveying the area and prospecting for industrial diamonds during the warm months. Two of the group are seasoned explorers while the other two, a young man and woman involved in a relationship, are on their first expedition. The leader is Sabinine, a man who seems driven to finish the project he is in charge of. ("You're a man possessed," one of the others says to him early in the film, to which he answers, "How else can a man get anything done in this short life?") As the group goes about its work, Sabinine is absorbed with memories of his wife and works intermittently on a letter to her full of highly charged emotions, the letter of the title. Just when it looks as if the expedition has been successfully completed, the explorers wake one morning to find themselves in the middle of a huge forest fire. Unable to communicate with their base and with winter quickly approaching, they have no choice but to try to make their way back through the fire-ravaged landscape on their own, an odyssey that fills the rest of the film.

With only four characters (five if you count the occasional flash memory of Sabinine's wife) and the most basic of plots, the emphasis in this variant of the archetypal struggle of humans against nature is not on narrative events or even the examination of people under stress. The defining quality of the film—and the thing that consistently holds your attention—is its amazing visual sense. For Kalatozov the most important thing here is to convey a sustained mood of disorientation and danger in a physical world that overnight has been turned upside down, and the way he establishes this mood is less through character and action than through the film's startling imagery. (The cinematographer is Sergei Urusevsky, who also shot The Cranes Are Flying and several other films by Kalatozov. They are often cited as one of the great director-cinematographer teams of cinema.) What Kalatazov shows us here is a vision of hell as potent and disturbing as anything to be found in film or fiction.
This is a world of menace and beauty, a world where flame, rock, water, smoke, fog, mist, trees, the sun and the moon combine to create an otherworldly landscape, and where the needs of the people in it are reduced to what is absolutely vital to survival. To show this, Kalatozov and Urusevsky use some of the most imaginative camerawork I've seen, the beautifully framed and composed shots edited with a fluidity not typical of the schematic Eisenstein-style montage favored by Soviet-era Russian filmmakers. Kalatozov and Urusevsky's previous film The Cranes Are Flying is distinguished by complex tracking shots which in their elaborate choreography rival those of Max Ophüls. Here too they keep the camera moving, but with a kinetic hyper-expressiveness far removed from the cool formalism of Cranes. Here the camera isn't gliding along in a studio set or a room or down a paved city street, but moving through the forests and marshes of one of the most rugged natural areas on Earth. The logistics involved in all those traveling shots filmed in the wild, especially considering that most if not all of the lighting appears to come from natural sources, boggle the mind.

To these Kalatazov and Urusevsky add a surprising amount of footage shot with a handheld camera. This happens at moments of heightened emotion or danger such as when the group are racing through the woods trying to escape the fire, the handheld camera registering all the confusion, panic, and terror of the situation. This handheld footage never seems gratuitous or exhibitionistic, as it can when misused or overused, but always controlled and purposeful. In more subdued passages where Kalatozov focuses on his characters, he often shoots them in tight close-up so that we see the play of emotions on their faces. These close-ups, like the handheld camerawork, are always used in a controlled way, and the performances are always scaled to correspond to the intimacy of such close observation.
In technique and style, the film seems surprisingly modern for a picture made more than fifty years ago, and the wilderness settings and minimalist plot and characters give it some of that feeling of timelessness and universality found in great works of art. There is, however, one reminder that the film was made during the Soviet era: the presence from time to time of the heavy-handed patriotism which was apparently obligatory in state-financed Russian films of the day. The point of the expedition, we are told, is to free the Soviet Union of reliance on foreign diamonds, and the purpose of the group's exertions to return to base is their patriotic duty to deliver the survey map. Thankfully, Kalatozov's attitude toward this ideological slant seems decidedly half-hearted, so ignore the didacticism and concentrate instead on Sabinine's temperamental need to complete his task and his personal need to survive so that he can see his wife again. Besides the film's sporadic forays into patriotic propaganda, the other time it slips is in the occasional passage that seems overwrought, marred by intrusive music and self-conscious visual effects which only distance the viewer from a situation that's already intensely dramatic.

Still, the main thing you're likely to take away from Letter Never Sent is not so much your emotional response to the film as your aesthetic response to its images. It's appropriate that a film which focuses on the ageless struggle between humans and nature ends as it began—with the camera, mounted in a helicopter, moving away from the people in the shot until all we see are tiny figures dwarfed by a vast landscape of fearful beauty.

To see more of Letter Never Sent, check out the amazing slideshow of images from the film at the Criterion website.


  1. Urusevsky and Kalatozov are indeed quite a combination, and I'd love to see their earlier collaboration The First Echelon. Mind you, Kalatozov himself was no slouch as a cameraman either, he was chief cameraman on his 1930 film Salt for Svanetia which contains some extraordinary images.

    1. James, of Kalatozov's films I've seen only this one and "The Cranes Are Flying." But even from those two films it's clear that he was a filmmaker of prodigious talent, and one with an incredible instinct for the potent image.

  2. This sounds pretty amazing, and I would love to check it out. Quite a few years ago, I was experiencing some insomnia, and late at night there was a Russian film playing on TV. I think it was called "Ballad of a Solider" and I thought it was really good. But alas, sleep overtook me and I never saw the rest of it. I think it was from about the same time as "Letters Never Sent."

    My library carries a lot of Criterion titles. I'll see if they have it. Thanks for the heads up on this one.

    1. Kevin, "Ballad of a Soldier" is another of those films I caught up with a couple of years ago on my foreign film binge, and it's well worth watching. Probably not late at night or when you're tired or just in the mood for something you want to watch casually, though. There's nothing else like these foreign language art house films, but they do require a fair degree of concentration. Another excellent Russian film from c. 1960 I saw not long ago was "Ivan's Childhood," another highly visual film (although I think Tarkovsky's later work surpassed it). But the best Russian film of this era I've seen is still "The Cranes Are Flying."

  3. "The logistics involved in all those traveling shots filmed in the wild, especially considering that most if not all of the lighting appears to come from natural sources, boggle the mind."

    Exactly R.D. Fine essay here encompassing everything that I also feel about this film. It just is an extraordinary visual experience, if at times some other things about it don't always work. I also rated it just shy of 4 stars. Such amazing images though....it is both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. I still cannot figure out how they seemed to film much of this through a forest fire! How did they do that? How did they plan that?! I also love some of those shots in the snow toward the end, especially as they hunker down at night. Almost surreal.

    1. Jon, thanks! Character and plot definitely are secondary here to the pictorial element. But that pictorial element is so incredible and so consistently, almost hypnotically fascinating that it more than makes up for the slender plot and (except for Sabinine) rather sketchy characters. There must have been a remarkable amount of planning to shoot the film; equally there are many things that just couldn't have been planned in advance. But visually it all comes together.

  4. "This is a world of menace and beauty, a world where flame, rock, water, smoke, fog, mist, trees, the sun and the moon combine to create an otherworldly landscape, and where the needs of the people in it are reduced to what is absolutely vital to survival."

    Wow, you really wax lyrical here R.D. with some marvelously poetic writing in the context of an exceptionally vivid review of a sleeper of a film that fully deserves wide exposure. I saw it for the first time just months ago on the Criterion blu-ray that I had acquired and I'd put it up there with CRANES. I completely agree that the Urusersky/Kalatozov collaboration is one of cinema's most brilliant, and the film leaves you with images that can never be forgotten. It's a bleak, visual poem of a film.

    Fabulous writing!