Letter Never Sent (Criterion)

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): **** 1/2

In one of the opening shots of Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent, four Soviet explorers struggle wordlessly through a throng of birch trees in the middle of a Siberian hinterland. The hand-held camera lurches along with the adventurers as they push on, hip-deep in water and dragging their gear behind them on rafts. There’s something about this scene – the close-up, shaky images of desperate characters fighting against a cold, indifferent nemesis – that instantly recalls George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In fact, much of Letter Never Sent’s man-vs.-nature conflict plays like a horror film. Here the relentless boogeyman doesn’t wield an axe but fire and ice.

The bare-bones plot involves a geological expedition into Russia’s unforgiving taiga. A team of four surveyors has been sent on a third and final mission to find diamonds, in the hopes that the gems will spur an “industrial revolution” and revitalize the stagnating economy.

Initially, the film is a moody character piece; two of the explorers – Tanya (Tatyana Samoilova) and Andrei (Vasili Livanov) – are romantically involved, much to the chagrin of Tanya’s not-so-secret admirer, the burly Sergei (Yevgeny Urbansky). Their laconic leader, Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky), spends his time composing the eponymous epistle, which comprises some of the narrative via lugubrious voiceover.

 

Before you can say “Deliverance,” Kalatozov completely shifts the focus of the film. One morning, just as they’re about to fold up their tents and deem the expedition a semi-success, the four intrepids awaken to find the forest around them engulfed in flame. The characters no longer have time for interpersonal intrigue; all their energy is suddenly devoted to survival. It’s as dramatic a mid-film tonal shift as Audition (partially due, I confess, to my utter ignorance of anything to do with the film going in).

The rest of Letter Never Sent is a white-knuckle battle of attrition against the elements. Again, Kalatzov and his brilliant cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, depict the conflict in imagery that’s hard to characterize as anything other than horror. If the open has the feel of Romero, then the scenes of the characters silhouettes moving against a sky darkened by smoke and flashing with lightning are straight out of James Whale or Val Lewton. On the Blu, this chiaroscuro is rendered so crisply the images have an almost three-dimensional pop.

Kalatzov and Urusevsky collaborated several times, most famously with I Am Cuba, a deliriously filmed piece of pro-Castro propaganda that still astounds with its “how did they do it?” camera acrobatics. Letter Never Sent also contains plenty of these moments; how the full-scale forest fire was committed to film without anyone being burned alive or asphyxiating is a matter that (due to Soviet-era secrecy) will probably never be settled.

The startling visuals more than make up for the at-times mushy dialogue. Lines like “So it turns out love is more rare than diamonds” are delivered without a shred of irony. Which brings me to the fact that Letter Never Sent is essentially (if not primarily) a work of Soviet propaganda. The language of propaganda is necessarily purple (even if the images aren’t). The film’s depiction of Mother Russia versus Mother Nature is meant to be an inspiring tale of how the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. The explorers are essentially disposable collateral damage in the sovereign state’s effort to create a new revenue stream.

It’s not clear how Kalatzov and crew feel about this theme. There are plenty of moments that undermine the glory of dying for your country, most tellingly a scene where an out-of-touch Moscow is praising the team’s efforts over the radio while the explorers are losing their battle with the fire. If there was any attempt to subvert the Soviet agenda on the part of the filmmakers, it was subtle enough to slip through the censors and leave one guessing at the end of the film.

Plenty of propaganda has made for great films (see also The 49th Parallel). From the silent era well into the sixties, Russian cinema was remarkably innovative, producing plenty of classic films that are still studied today for their technique. What’s particularly interesting about this (and what it says about the nature of cinema in general) is that most (if not all) of these films were Soviet propaganda. Letter Never Sent is no exception, but its strengths lie in its amazing construction of a simple story, perfectly told. It belongs in the canon, not just with other Soviety stand-outs like Earth or Battleship Potemkin, but as an important, well-executed classic of world cinema.

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