LETTER NEVER SENT (Neotpravlennoye pismo) B+
aka: The Unmailed Letter
Russia (97 mi) 1960 d: Mikhail Kalatozov
A rarely screened film, this is the third film collaboration between Kalatozov and his legendary cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, who was a front-line cameraman during WWII where he obviously learned the art of camera mobility from first hand experience literally decades before its time. Urusevsky’s brilliant work in this film is notorious for having influenced several scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), most likely the speed of the camera as it whizzes through the Siberian forest remaining completely in focus capturing people running through natural environments. Of note, on the night the film was screened, which began at 8 pm, there was a full lunar eclipse (2/20/08) NASA - Total Lunar Eclipse: February 20, 2008, reaching its peak for about one hour from 9 to 10 pm. Conveniently, the Russian Cyrillic language was completely indecipherable by the student projectionists at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema who could not figure out how to do reel changes with so many ten-minute reels, causing them on two occasions to completely stop the film, turn on the lights, take a brief break and figure out how to organize the next segment before continuing. This allowed the audience to run outside on a perfectly clear night in the frigid 5 degree winter temperatures to observe the natural phenomena happening in the sky. For these incidents to have occurred during a film that revolves around man’s fragile relationship to the natural world around him felt like no accident, like the stars were all properly aligned.
In the spirit of pioneer exploration, dedicated to all the Soviet people, this film bears a similarity to Carroll Ballard’s NEVER CRY WOLF (1983), opening in the sky high above the clouds, a group of four Russian geologists are flown into a remote Siberian forest in search of what they believe will be an immense diamond vein. Left on a riverbank with all their gear and equipment tossed in a heap, the camera is the viewpoint of the helicopter as it lifts into the sky and flies away, leaving them as tiny specks on the ground. Tatyana Samojlova returns as Tanya, the only female of the group, making a large impression after she comes out of a swim with her nipples noticeably protruding. This raises a certain amount of sexual tension as she is married to the feeblest man in the group, the intellectually inclined radio man Sabinine (Innokenti Smoktuvosky) who discovers Sergei (Yevgeni Urbansky), the man best acquainted with outdoor wilderness skills, may have his eye on her as well. The fourth man appears to be the team leader and guide, the level-headed Andrei (Vasili Livanov). Digging a series of holes in the ground, they may as well be digging their graves, as their search proves futile until Andrei convinces them to stay beyond their agreed upon duration, featuring a series of close up shots and a shirtless Sergei hoisting an ax, capturing a Dovzhenko-like rhythm of work until ultimately they find what they’re looking for. They patriotically raise their glasses toasting the future pioneers of the Soviet space race, believing they have discovered a means to fund their mission.
Despite several name actors, their influence is diminished by the rather sappy story, instead what can’t help capturing our attention is the physical appeal of that Urusevsky camera that never rests and some bold, over the top Russian music by Nikolai Kryukov, whose credits go back to the 30’s, actually helping revise musical scores in the late 40’s and 50’s for Eisenstein’s POTEMKIN (1925) and several early Pudovkin films. The balance between the artistry is extremely effective as they do capture a Russian flavor that we see again in Tarkovsky’s Ivan's Childhood (1962), especially the scenes of men sloshing around the lakes and wetlands deep inside the Russian forests, featuring unforgettable images of birch trees and a recollection of music back home, but also that incredible train shot in Stalker (1979). The optimism of the film is immediately upended when a huge forest fire breaks out and they need to make a desperate escape, discovering their boat is lost and their radio can’t transmit messages. Basically lost in what turns into a desolate Siberian wasteland, what follows is a lesson in survival as they are trapped inside the inferno of a burning forest that stretches for miles in every direction, eventually costing several of them their lives, ultimately running out of food and supplies, as their boots wear out, leaving them defenseless against the onset of ruthlessly brutal winter conditions that arrive in the blink of an eye, as fire suddenly turns to a river of ice. The pace of the film slows to a crawl, resembling the monotonous pace of GERRY (2002), while also expressing the hopelessly unforgiving conditions in the finale of Masaki Kobayashi’s THE HUMAN CONDITION (1961), which this film may well have influenced. The poetic beauty of the primeval wilderness belies its deadly capabilities, as humans occasionally are no match for the elements of nature, yet this film etches some of the more indelible images, reminders of how the earth once existed alone, immense, and untroubled by man’s presence.