Ranking: #12/111

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov (Georgia/Soviet)      

Genre: Adventure Drama

In Letter Never Sent, Kalatozov returns to some of the themes explored in his 1930 ethnographic documentary film, Salt for Svanetia. The setting for both films is a remote location, cut off from civilisation, where life becomes a matter of survival against the forces of Nature. And both films convey the conviction that progress depends on conquering the hostile wilderness to bring it under collective human control. The cinematographic imagery in Letter Never Sent is equally poetical and dramatic. The camera work is intimate and dynamic, often using a handheld camera. This is Russian poetic realism at its best. Kalatozov’s camera is right there with the explorers in the wild taiga, that swampy coniferous forest lying between the lowlands of Siberia’s steppes and the coastal tundra. It’s a beautifully textured and atmospheric film.

What is especially impressive in Letter Never Sent, in addition to its captivating imagery, is the build-up of narrative tension. At first, the film is about a scientific exploration by a party of four geologists, three men and one woman, to search for diamonds, on behalf of the Soviet government, in a wilderness area in central Siberia. As the plane from base camp drops them off, long shots seem to reveal their apparent insignificance in a vast landscape.

Then, tensions between the four scientists escalate due to a growing infatuation by one of the men with the expedition’s only female. And the forces of Nature become increasingly challenging until a dangerous forest fire breaks out and threatens their lives. They battle against a sense of hopelessness, that their enormous task may, in the end, prove fruitless. As Tanya says, “Maybe there are no diamonds in Siberia.”

These escalations of conflict turn the adventure into a primal fight for survival. The acting is intense and convincing throughout.

The director plays with the themes of different kinds of desire, sexual desire in the case of Sergei, the desire to be famous explorers and discoverers, the desire to serve their country by completing their mission and, finally, the desire to survive. Kalatozov seems to be sending a warning that desires can be dangerous. They can drive a person towards madness. At one point, Sergei, driven by his passion for Tanya, exclaims, “I don’t care a damn for your bookish morals.” We see how frightened she is by the intensity of his passion. They are in the wild, beyond the range of civilisation, where anything can happen. Desire is contrasted with the need for rationality in their scientific pursuits. The idea is that science must overcome primal nature – in the land and inside the heart of humans.

The combined power of the suspenseful, intriguing narration, strong, economical dialogue, the film’s fluid, graphic imagery and its mobile camera work make this a memorable work of cinematic art. The blending of form and content is seamless – a magnificent achievement.

Konstantin Sabinin is the guide of the geological expedition. It is he who writes the “letter never sent” to his wife, Vera, telling her about their trip as it unfolds. In flashbacks, which are often out of focus to suggest they are subjective memories, he recalls their times together.  It is a diary which gives him the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of their mission. The voice over narration of the letter’s contents provides a good bridging device to carry the story along.

There is another letter which was never meant to be read, which is the note in which Sergei explains his attraction to Tanya, although she is the committed girlfriend of Andrei. This love triangle provides a level of tension in the first part of the movie.

Initially, the group fail to find any trace of diamonds while panning in the rivers. Later, they start excavating and prospecting on higher ground. Close to exhaustion and demoralisation, they eventually discover some diamonds in the earth on the plateau. After a joyful celebration, they radio the news of their discovery to base camp. They dream of a new Diamond City being built there. They then begin to pack their supplies into a canoe. However, a fire breaks out during the night before their departure. While Sergei tries to retrieve supplies from the canoe, he is killed by a falling tree that is burning.

A search party is sent to look for them and, at one point, an aircraft flies overhead; they are unable to get the attention of their would-be rescuers. Andrei, meanwhile, is injured and needs to be carried. He pleads with Konstantin and Tanya to leave him behind, in order for them to save themselves. When they refuse, he disappears during the night, presumably sacrificing himself for the greater, collective good.

The weather is turning bitterly cold as Konstantin and Tanya keep going, determined to pass along their map showing the location of the diamonds. The first snowfall of winter covers them in snow. Winter is seen as another adversarial force. Later, Tanya dies of exposure and only Konstantin is left.  He makes a raft to float down the freezing river. After a time, he loses consciousness, completely exhausted and almost frozen to death. He hallucinates, seeing a vision of a big construction project on the river, abuzz with machinery and workers labouring in harmony to build a new mine and town. The dream of Soviet style construction recalls the ending of Salt for Svanetia, when the salt shortage was resolved after teams of construction workers, with their steamrollers, arrive to build a road to connect the village with the resources of Soviet society.

Finally, Konstantin’s raft drifts into a snowbank. Then the searchers spot him lying in the snow and land nearby. When they approach him, he looks motionless and dead. Using a stethoscope, the rescuers listen for his heartbeat. Then, he opens his eyes, still barely alive.

Konstantin has fulfilled the Soviet ideal of service to the state, achieving the mission he was chosen to command, despite the hardships they suffered and the loss of three lives during their ill-fated expedition. All of them had put their country before themselves. They were pioneers in tough, uncharted territory. Somehow, their heroism is touching and believable, without any sentimentality. That indicates that Kalatozov has created a whole world in the Siberian wilderness, with rugged natural surroundings, in which his characters seem plausible and real.

The film has the look and feel throughout of a genuine epic.