A Subversive Affirmation: Letter Never Sent 

Neotpravlennoe pismo (Letter Never Sent, Mikhail Kalatozov, 1960) is a curious document that bears a lot of freight. It is simultaneously a rousing adventure story, a master class in cinematography, a tribute to the spirit of collectivism, and a complete subversion of its explicitly stated values, all at the same time.

The saga of four Soviet explorers seeking diamond deposits in the wilds of Siberia reads, on the surface, as a kind of anti-Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It is a quest that intends to reveal the nobility of the human spirit rather than, as Madre did, revealing man’s inherent weaknesses and murderous greed. Though created in the post-Stalin Khruschevian thaw, Letter Never Sent adheres strongly to the social-realist artistic ideal of communicating the “Soviet values” of selflessness, determination, and evangelical political fervour. But watch closely – it is telling you something else as well.

Kalatozov had plenty of experience in framing his ideas to fall within the boundaries of official favor. In 1931 he made Lursmani cheqmashi (Nail in the Boot), a late silent farce about how an inept soldier inadvertently sabotages the Russian war effort. It displeased the authorities and earned the director a seven-year suspension from creative responsibilities. Having learned his lesson, when he returned he did so in full true-believer mode, creating Soviet hero-sagas such Valeriy Chkalov (Wings of Victory, 1941) and Vikhri vrazhdebnye (Hostile Whirlwinds, 1953).

After the de-Stalinisation process began in 1956, Russia’s creative atmosphere lightened somewhat. It became possible for narratives to deal in characters rather than stereotypes, and for stories to make room for ambiguities and at least undercurrents of dissonance. (Kalatozov was undoubtedly aided in developing his sensitivities by access to Western cinema during his World War II service in Washington as a cultural attaché, giving him exposure to non-Soviet techniques that few Russian filmmakers could boast of enjoying.) In his last three Communist-themed films, Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957), this film, and Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba, 1964) (his final film, Krasnaya Palatka [The Red Tent, 1969], was an international project, a would-be epic deemed a failure on release), Kalatozov is finally able to pierce the glum shell of official idealnost style and invigorate his cinema with a literally unbolted camera, ambitious scripts, and dangerous ideas.

Letter Never Sent

In this Kalatozov, who started out as a cinematographer, was aided immeasurably by his gifted director of photography Sergei Urusevskiy. Together they crafted not only strong frame compositions and marvelous effects with light, but they also choreographed long, uninterrupted takes that contradicted the Kuleshov effect – the reigning cinematic idea that context and feeling were determined primarily by editing choices, that audience response was controlled largely by the skillfulness of montage.

By pulling his camera off its tripod and tracking his characters through long, complex, unbroken shots, Kalatozov forces the viewer to make up their own mind about what is happening onscreen, and allows the actors to develop a thought or feeling through to its conclusion. It is a risky high-wire act that pays off with immense results. In hindsight, it looks like an innovation that was noticed, eagerly taken up, and improved on by Tarkovsky and others.

Each frame in Letter Never Sent does triple duty. They serve the story, they resonate on a metaphoric level (sometimes all too obviously), and they exist in their own aesthetic right as pure images. This kind of beauty would have been, under Stalin, condemned as useless, indulgent, bourgeois “formalism”; fortunately, the recently-slipped constraints allowed Kalatozov to indulge in the sheer ecstasy of picture-making. The black-and-white cinematography keeps the viewer tightly focused on form, mass, motion and feeling. This could easily have been a silent film.

The film’s opening narrative crawl is a dedication to the brave, placing us firmly in the genre of the Soviet hero-tale. The opening shot is a vertiginous up-and-out helicopter shot as the four principals wave gaily to the departing helicopter that has set them down at the edge of the wilderness. Fittingly, the shot holds until the figures are dwarfed by, and then vanish into, the landscape.

Letter Never Sent

The quartet is, on the surface, a typical adventure-film team. There’s the strongman/guide, Sergei; geologists (and couple) Tanya and Andrei, she perky, he the archetype of the oblivious intellectual; and wise and reasonable team leader Sabinin, whose long, unfinished letter to his wife also serves as a narrative device. (Sabinin’s wife intrudes twice in dreamlike sequences – once as memory, the other time as hallucination.)

The four are immediately steeped in the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The landscape is first shot as “scenery” – an inspiring, monumental backdrop for heroic deeds. As their spring expedition drags on through summer and fall, however, they are no longer shot against the landscape but trapped within it, at times at the bottom of exploratory trenches that look like so many graves. Time and again, Kalatozov and Urusevskiy shoot the explorers in profile with a long lens in front of a setting sun – attempts to retain a sense of the epic and to invest the characters with an anonymous, mythic status that grates against the growing frustrations of their unfulfilled mission. They speculate that finding the diamonds will spark an industrial revolution; “We’ll find them, and we’ll be happy for the rest of our lives,” chirps Tatiana.

Another “letter never sent” in the film is from Sergei to Tatiana. Tatiana and Andrei find it in the river, Sergei denies it – but in it, he writes that he wants to confess his love for her but knows she loves Andrei. This unresolved romantic triangle further undermines the team’s solidarity (a profusion of cockeyed Dutch angles underlines this). At one point, the thud of Sergei’s pickaxe pounding the soil becomes an insistent heartbeat’s pulse. Only the fortuitous discovery of the diamonds prevents emotional chaos, and as Andrei and Tatiana race through the autumn woods, shouting out their find, the camera tears along, heedless with them,, drunk with the pleasure of unrestrained movement, a lateral sublimation of a horizontal impulse. The head is stronger than the heart (and the crotch), but barely.

Their only connection to the outside world, a two-way radio, allows them to announce their discovery to their base (and, ironically, to listen to sentimental music from home). Immediately, a massive forest fire cuts them off from their return route, and the elements begin to pick our heroes off one by one. At the same time, conveniently, the radio stops transmitting their words. They can not call for help, but they can still listen – to a long stream of hyperbolic, clichéd praise from base about their achievement. They are enjoying a premature eulogy.

Letter Never Sent

Tatiana and Sabinin on the edge of death

As their trek continues, the long tracking shots grow glummer, as they slog and thrash, trapped in a gaunt geometry of trees and brush bereft of leaf. A frantic torchlight search in the stormy night is almost Lear-like. Even as the protagonists turn their sculpted heads, artfully distressed with makeup-grime, to the sky and mouth the expected heroic phrases (“No to weakness – no to faintheartedness – no to despair”), the absurdity of their positive assertions is obvious. People die, their corpses are abandoned, gear is shed, and the remainder struggle on.

By the time the film ends, the bleak despair of the visuals has completely undercut the film’s ideological content. On the edge of death, Sabinin’s vision is not of personal salvation, but of industrial progress. It’s a laughably hollow conceit. As the last-minute, improbable happy ending takes place, the camera’s final shot pulls up and out as it did its first, until there is nothing, nothing, nothing.