Four Russian geologists walk into Siberia. Siberia says “Get the hell out of my taiga!”
Has any filmmaker, Russian or otherwise, ever depicted Siberia as a happening spot? Are there raunchy spring break films set on the banks of the Tunguska? Surely there must be Siberian comedies, but Google only comes up with three hits for “Siberian comedies” and just over 300 seemingly non-film hits for “Siberian comedy.” I’d love to see one (“Leningrad Cowboys” doesn’t really count.)
As it is, when you hear the words “expedition to Siberia” you can be pretty sure things aren’t going to work out well, so I hope I’m not providing any spoilers when I tell you that the four protagonists of “Letter Never Sent” (1959) don’t fare particularly well in their search for diamonds in the sparsely populated Siberian Central Plateau. Sparsely populated as in “Nobody other than them.” Aside from some government voices on the radio and a few flashbacks, this is strictly a four person show: three men and a woman, a social experiment also unlikely to end with a cheerful song and dance number.
Director Mikhail Kalatozov is probably best known for his late career international breakthroughs “The Cranes are Flying” (1957) and “I Am Cuba” (1964), but sandwiched in-between these now-canonized films was this stripped down exercise in psycho-elemental poetry. It’s man and woman vs. nature, and there’s no doubt who’s going to win that battle. Earth, wind, water, and fire play the four antagonists to our four ambitious scientists, and once forest fires rage, gale forces howl, and rain pelts down on them, it’s just a matter of time before they succumb. Their mistake was actually finding the diamonds. Siberia doesn’t have much to cling to, after all, and you can’t bet it won’t give up its treasures easily.
The title refers to a letter written by expedition leader Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky) to his wife back home and, in part, to a scribbled secret message written by the brooding Sergei (Yevgeny Urbansky) to his fellow scientist Tanya (Tatyana Samoilova) who is in love with the other party member Andrei (Vasili Livanov). This provides the source of some of the initial tensions, but their romantic entanglements don’t amount to a hill of beans in the face of frontier fury, however, and the second half of the film is devoted almost exclusively to a harrowing effort just to survive.
The plot of “Letter Never Sent” often feels like the skeletal structure that provides an excuse for the cinematographic virtuosity of Sergei Urusevsky whose collaboration with Kalatozov (including “The Cranes Are Flying” and “I Am Cuba”) has become the stuff of legends. Urusevsky deploys a hand-held camera to great effect (and a time before most of us expect to see hand-held work) with subjective shots that magnify the characters’ faces in the foreground against looming nature backdrops or, just as often, with objects (branches, etc.) interpolated between the lens and the characters, giving the natural world a more tangible and intrusive presence. Elaborate, gliding tracking shots (some through location footage, others through artificial looking sets) provide a sense of mastery over nature that the characters can’t achieve as fires spring up, branches scrape by just in front of the lens, and human figures are swallowed up by sheets of water.
The black-and-white photography is both exquisite and agile, though I’m not sure it evokes the psychological poignancy Kalatozov is after. The striking images linger more vividly than any of the characters, but it’s hard not to be moved by the sheer beauty and the oddly Romantic sensibility that you wouldn’t expect from a story about doomed explorers. They are heroic figures, and their struggle is an epic one rendered in sensual, intimate compositions. These four pioneers might not have a chance against Mother Nature, but they’re laying the groundwork for Mother Russia to tame the wilderness with technological prowess. Of course, that’s not necessarily going to end well either, but that’s another story.
The 1.33:1 high-def transfer is, perhaps, a bit soft at points. Whether that’s from the source print or not I don’t know, but the flaws are minor, and overall the 1080p image is pretty strong throughout with pleasantly crisp black-and-white contrast. “Letter Never Sent” is an immersive visual experience, and this transfer does it justice.
The LPCM Mono sound track is fairly rich overall with a nice balance between somewhat hollow-sounding dialogue (magnifying a sense of isolation) and the scenes in which nature makes its presence known that provide a greater sense of audio depth, even in Mono. Optional English subtitles support the Russian audio.
This one is pure bare-bones, which is why it comes in at the lower Criterion price point. All we get is the 16-page insert booklet with an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova.
Even aficionados familiar with “The Cranes are Flying” and “I Am Cuba” may not know much about the film Kalatozov made in-between. This Criterion edition is, unfortunately, devoid of extras (not even a trailer!) but I am sure anyone who cares about those two films will want to check out this release by one of the great Russian directors.