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The late-1950s Russian Thaw for cultural exchange didn't last very long but the talented director Mikhail Kalatozov made the most of it. His 1957 The Cranes are Flying dared to use the sacred subject of WW2 as a backdrop for a love story more concerned with expressionist flights of emotion than politics. Just a few years earlier this kind of ideological faux pas might have ended the director's career. Cranes instead became a prestige success for Mosfilm in foreign markets. Kalatazov and his leading actress Tatyana Samojlova even went to New York to promote the picture.
The window of openness lasted only a handful of years; by 1963 Kalatazov was in Cuba helping to fashion a pro- Fidel, anti-imperialist propaganda epic, Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba).. But he first directed one more masterpiece, 1960's Letter Never Sent (Neotpravlennoye pismo). A movie about dedicated scientists, it begins in a way that leads us to expect a political statement about personal sacrifice for the state. But the story by Valeri Osipov goes beyond such concerns, expressing instead the drive of any motivated individual to make a meaningful contribution to society. Modern filmmakers pumping their pictures full of digital pyrotechnics have nothing on the remarkable Mikhail Kalatazov: the radical camera technique and complex visual effects in this show are exhilarating.
A four-man team is dropped by helicopter deep in the Siberian wild -- three geologists and a guide. Their mission is to continue a search for diamond deposits that has been going on for several fruitless years. The Soviet Union has no known diamond fields but the topography of certain areas resembles that of South Africa, so hopes are high. Tanya and Andrei (Tatyana Samojlova & Vasili Livanov) are sweethearts, but the dedicated Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky) has left his love Vera (Galina Kozhakina) back in Moscow. Although they work in complete isolation he writes her passionate letters on a daily basis. The hearty trailblazer and camp-maker Sergei (Yevgeni Urbansky) helps with the heavy labor and looks out for their general security. As the summer search season wears on without a single sign of diamonds, Sergei finds himself strongly attracted to Tanya. She's visibly interested but elects to stay with the bookish Vasili.
Just as the swift winter is closing in and the search is looking hopeless, the expedition finds what it is looking for. The scientists report back to base camp over the radio (they are but one of several teams), toast their good luck and prepare to leave. That's when they're caught in an enormous wildfire, a conflagration with a 600-mile front. Cut off from the world and fleeing for their lives, disaster catches up with them, one at a time. The character of each is measured as snow extinguishes the flames; their escape is highly unlikely.
Letter Never Sent has things in common with any story of exploration, where circumstance can easily thwart the best laid plans of good men. The group's reward for their hard work and success is to find themselves lost in a wilderness so remote that they might as well be marooned in outer space. Search planes can't see through the heavy smoke clouding the atmosphere for hundreds of miles in each direction. They've lost most of their provisions escaping from the fire; when the cold closes in death will not be far behind. One's social ideology is not a factor.
That scenario would be exciting enough, but director Kalatazov and his Cranes are Flying cameraman Sergei Urusevsky overlay the proceedings with a physical-emotional landscape created from pure cinematics. The expressionist touches begin with filtered shots that darken skies and a trucking camera that turns a forest into a dizzying maze. Then come dramatic silhouetted images that isolate the diggers in their labor, seemingly pitting them against blowing leaves and trees bent by the wind. Finally, poetic superimpositions communicate the psychic states of the characters. Tanya rhapsodizes over the power of nature as the world spins around her, and Sergei's aroused emotions are expressed with overlays of flames. When the real fire comes, resulting in similar special effects, it is almost as if the forest conflagration was sparked by overheated, unrequited passion. Kalatazov doesn't go in for too much rapid cutting, but many of his pictorial effects indeed recall the achievement of Soviet classics from the 1920s.
Perhaps the film's most beautiful sequences are romantic images directly reminiscent of The Cranes are Flying. While Andrei, Sergei and Tanya work out their irksome romantic issues, Sabinin writes his loving letters to a woman who has faith both in him and his dangerous profession. Vera's ghost-like image visits Sabinin as a comfort-memory. The effect is beautiful but frightening -- in many fantastic films such visitations like this precede unpleasant news. The Vera apparition functions much like the "phantom" of the soldier-husband Robert Ryan that haunts his wartime wife Ginger Rogers in Edward Dmytryk's underrated Tender Comrade: we know something bad is going to happen.
Letter Never Sent never has a chance to go soft and sentimental. No miracles arrive to rescue the group when the cold closes in. The film lauds their superhuman efforts but acknowledges the harsh facts of survival. Each person who falls leaves a gaping emotional hole in the story, and Kalatazov's harsh logic never lets up. The ending is not an utter defeat because the film's celebration of the cooperative spirit is never betrayed. Letter Never Sent declares that a life sacrificed to help one's fellows is not a life wasted, even with an ending offering little in the way of a personal victory.
Mikhail's last film was 1969's The Red Tent, an international drama about polar explorers filmed in a conventional style. The Cranes are Flying is a deliriously romantic soap opera marked with expressionistic sequences. In Soy Cuba Kalatazov's visual magic frequently overpowered the tenuous political messages, and added a distinctively Russian flavor at odds with the Cuban experience. The least known of Kalatazov's Russian Thaw classics, Letter Never Sent is perhaps the most universal in appeal.
DVD Blu-ray of Letter Never Sent is a terrific HD restoration of this endlessly impressive picture. The beautiful B&W images show a technical finesse seen only in the best Soviet productions. The multilayered optical montages are flawless, devoid of dirt, flickering or contrast issues; one would think that these sequences were digitally composited.
Criterion disc producer Issa Clubb opts for a relatively bare bones approach to this disc, which sells at a lower price point than most of the Collection's packages. The only extra is an informative and thoughtful insert booklet essay by Dina Iordanova. Extras that speak to the issue of the Cultural Thaw can be found on Criterion's earlier DVD disc of The Cranes are Flying.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Letter Never Sent Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.