In traditional narrative cinema, it is rare for a film to achieve a visual expressiveness that matches – yet does not interfere- with its storytelling. By in large, visual panache is subdued in favor of narrative thrust, and moments of cinematographic flair are reserved for punctuation rather than syntax. Every so often, though, there is that perfect combination of look and feel, style and substance, director and cinematographer that imbues an entire work with the magic feeling we call “cinematic.”
Perhaps the greatest of these collaborative duos was that of director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky whose work together produced a string of world-class motion pictures in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some of these films have become beloved arthouse classics, such as the 1957 war epic The Cranes Are Flying or 1964’s I Am Cuba, both of which are firmly cemented in the canon of world cinema. Equally dazzling, yet somehow criminally overlooked, is their 1959 collaboration Letter Never Sent. For reasons unclear, this astonishingly beautiful tragedy never broke through in the West like Cranes or Cuba, and has remained one of the true hidden gems of filmmaking history.
The simple story of four Soviet geologists searching for diamonds in the rugged Taiga wilderness, Letter Never Sent is an allegory of perseverance, endurance, sacrifice and survival. Adopting an unusual two-act structure, the first half of the film tracks the team’s virulent and seemingly fruitless pursuit of the precious stones. No sooner are they discovered though, than the expedition is forced to abandon camp by a raging forest fire. The latter half of the film, then, tracks the geologists’ struggle to save not only themselves, but their invaluable discovery as well.
This parable has explicitly political undertones, which fit it squarely within the tradition of Socialist Realism. Hard work and manual labor are glorified within the first half, while the personal sacrifice of the individual for the greater good is the dominant theme of the latter. Still, a more universal resonance can be found in the idea of working hard to attain something, and then working even harder to keep it. With nature as its formidable antagonist, Letter Never Sent is a testament to Man’s will to survive. With nature at center stage, Letter Never Sent is filled with an aspect at once harsh and sensuous. The epic Siberian landscape not only provides a majestic backdrop for the drama, it is presented as a character, a daunting force the mortals must constantly contend with physically and mentally. Falling over loose rocks, wading through snow and freezing waters, even ducking through burning branches, the group is constantly at the mercy of the elements. Their only defense is the sheer will to survive.
What distinguishes Letter Never Sent from other survival films, though, is no doubt the photography, which is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Utilizing the simplicity of the story and characters, Kalatozov and Urusevsky were able to create a visual language that is endemic to the film. Every shot in Letter Never Sent has been carefully conceptualized, choreographed and executed for maximum impact and visual symbolism. In the film’s very first shot, for example, the main characters are seen from the point of view of a departing helicopter. At first, their faces fill the screen, but as the camera rises and rises, they become nothing more than obscure specks on the vast landscape.
This type of visual expressiveness had all but disappeared with the advent of talking pictures, yet Kalatozov was able to blend it seamlessly into a distinctly modern approach to filmmaking. Urusevsky’s arsenal of visual storytelling techniques is applied in consistently elegant yet experimental ways, most notably in the incredibly long, impeccably choreographed hand-held shots following the actors through dense forests. This style, which Kalatozov and Urusevsky began with The Cranes Are Flying and fully exploited with I Am Cuba, can be seen as the steppingstone between the Soviet cinema of Eisenstein and the silent era, and the Soviet cinema of Tarkovsky and the “new wave” of the 1960s and 70s. Letter Never Sent is a delight for both the connoisseur and the casual filmgoer. Its reputation is only now growing in the West, making it one of cinema’s best-kept secrets. – Hunter Shaw, Arthouse Monthly Programmer