Letter Never Sent (Neotpravlennoye pismo)

Letter Never Sent
(Neotpravlennoye pismo)
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Screenplay: Grigori Koltunov, Valeri Osipov, Viktor Rozov (story by Valeri Osipov)
Stars: Tatyana Samojlova (Tanya), Yevgeni Urbansky (Sergei), Innokenti Smoktunovsky (Sabinine), Vasili Livanov (Andrei), Galina Kozhakina (Vera)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: Soviet Union
Letter Never Sent Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Letter Never SentMikhail Kalatozov, whose career stretched from the silent era into the early 1970s, was always too dazzling a visual stylist for Soviet cinema. Like his contemporary, the great Sergei Eisenstein, his artistry often got in the way of his propaganda, and he found himself on the wrong side of the censors, who ruled that his 1931 film The Nail in the Boot (Lursmani cheqmashi) committed the “ideological error” of emphasizing formalism at the expense of Stalin’s ordained socialist realism (liner notes for a recent MoMA screening of the film list the specific sins: “its oblique narrative, visual abstraction, and sympathetic portrayal of a soldier who inadvertently commits sabotage through his ineptitude on the battlefield”). Kalatozov was subsequently censured for seven years and wasn’t able to resume his film career until the end of the decade.

The thawing effect of official de-Stalinization in the 1950s presented Kalatozov and other artists with the bold opportunity to once again explore cinema’s social and ideological implications outside of dogmatic party discipline, something that hadn’t happened in a substantial way since the mid-1920s. Not surprisingly, the late 1950s and ’60s turned into a golden era for Kalatozov in which he produced a series of films that garnered international acclaim at various film festivals and played in western countries via exchange programs. The Cranes Are Flying (Letjat zhuravli, 1957), a melodramatic war film that won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Festival, and I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba, 1964), an avant-garde celebration of Cuba’s communist revolution, are the most talked about of his later films, and for good reason: They are powerful works of art that push the aesthetic envelope in astonishing ways.

However, sandwiched between those two films is the less heralded, though no less extraordinary, Letter Never Sent (Neotpravlennoye pismo), an existential adventure film about a quartet of geologists searching for diamonds in the dense wilderness of the Siberian plateau. As with all of his films starting with The Cranes Are Flying, Kalatozov collaborated on Letter Never Sent with cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, who was educated as a painter and had worked as a graphic designer and combat photographer before entering the film industry in the mid-1940s. His extensive experience in multiple forms of visual arts shows in his work with Kalatozov; together they forged an innovative approach to storytelling that remains invigorating and cutting edge to this day.

The title of Letter Never Sent is a bit misleading, as it actually refers to two unsent letters. The first is written by the expedition’s leader, Sabinine (Innokenti Smoktunovsky), to his wife Vera (Galina Kozhakina). Having missed his opportunity to send the letter before being dropped off in the wilderness by plane, Sabinine continues writing it, turning it into both a daily log of, and a personal/philosophical rumination about, the expedition’s efforts. The second letter has been written by Sergei (Yevgeni Urbansky), the expedition’s gruff, muscular guide. Unlike Sabinine’s letter, Sergei never intends to send his, as it is written to convey his unrequited love to Tanya (Tatyana Samojlova, star of The Cranes Are Flying), a geologist in the expedition who is involved with Andrei (Vasili Livanov), the group’s other geologist.

Given the romantic appeal of The Cranes Are Flying, one might imagine that a love triangle forms the dramatic backbone of Letter Never Sent, but this plotline is constantly relegated to the background, first by the group’s intense desire to unearth a vein of diamonds in the wilderness and thus give purpose to their dangerous expedition (there is much discussion of how the precious gems will allow the beloved motherland to fund its industrial dreams, including space exploration) and then by the fundamental need to survive. While the first half of the film focuses on the expedition itself, the second half is a gritty survivalist drama set off by a massive forest fire that sends the surviving members of the expedition deeper into the wilderness, from which they must find a new route back to their rendezvous point while their supplies dwindle, they suffer from injury and exhaustion, and the lethal Siberian winter draws closer.

From a narrative perspective, Letter Never Sent could have easily devolved into simple pulp adventurism, but Kalatozov’s direction and Urusevsky’s cinematography elevates the familiar into something both emotionally engaging and existentially disarming. The characters attempt to cling to each other as they fight to survive, yet circumstances continually tear them apart, particularly in one heart-rending sequence where a wounded member of the group begs to be left behind because he knows that he is slowing the others down and may contribute to all of their deaths. The screenplay by Grigori Koltunov, Valeri Osipov, and Viktor Rozov finds clever ways of incorporating sly jabs at the Soviet state, most obviously the recurring use of the expedition’s broken radio, over which they can hear the excited, party-line celebrations of their great success while they, unable to talk back, face certain death from mother nature (it is similar to the manner in which the communist party’s political slogans were gently chided in The Cranes Are Flying). Also in question is the value of their expedition: Although it is never stated outright, it is hard not to see the implicit suggestion that the pursuit of diamonds to fund the state’s industrial expansion justifies their immense suffering (the film’s tone brings to mind Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s masterful Kanal, in which Polish resistance fighters struggles to escape the sewers of Warsaw while the unseen Soviet army fails to come to their aid).

The film’s overall intensity is heightened even further by the decision to shoot much of it on location, thus achieving with great effect what German director Werner Herzog has referred to as “the voodoo of location.” Kalatozov and Urusevsky unleash the camera in the actual Siberian wilderness, allowing it to duck in and out of trees and tall weeds, thus conveying the essence of a completely enveloping environment, with the only flaw being the sequences that were clearly shot on sound stages at Mosfilm. The forest fire is perhaps the film’s most jaw-dropping sequence, as the actors trek through a hellish landscape of burning trees in long, unbroken takes that make us squirm with concern for not just the characters’ safety, but the actors playing them. Letter Never Sent achieves an amazing sense of verisimilitude despite the highly stylized nature of the visuals, which employ dissolves, cross-fades, extreme close-ups, and a variety of complex tracking shots to merge the physical and the spiritual, ensuring that we are never sure at any point who will or won’t survive.

Letter Never Sent Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Letter Never Sent is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioRussian Linear PCM 1.0 moanural
SupplementsEssay by film scholar Dina Iordanova
DistributorThe Criterion Collection
Release DateMarch 20, 2012

As far as I can tell, Letter Never Sent has never been officially available on any home video format in the United States, which makes Criterion’s new Blu-Ray release that much more exciting. The 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer was made from a new 35mm print and digitally restored. The image, which is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, will not look perfect to modern eyes, although said imperfections seem to be inherent to the film itself. Overall the image is sharp and well-detailed, with some scenes seeming a little softer than others (I got the impression that the quality of the filmstock used to shoot the film varied during production). There is good presence of grain, and black levels are exceedingly dark without becoming noisy. The contrast is generally excellent, which is important for a film with such outstanding visuals, and there are very, very few signs of age or wear. The lossless Linear PCM monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack positive and digitally restored. It is smooth and clean and sounds great for its age.
Unfortunately, there are no supplements on the disc, which is a real shame since Criterion’s 2002 DVD for The Cranes Are Flying was also bare-bones. The insert booklet does contain an excellent essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova, though.

Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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