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Sunday, 18 July 2021

Every Little Thing I Adore About 'Letter Never Sent'...

This post was inspired by (and warmly stolen from) Alex Withrow at the wonderful ‘And So It Begins’. Check out his takes here.

I first saw Letter Never Sent as I’m sure many people have: As the afterthought sandwiched between director Mikhail Kalatozov’s infinitely more lauded ‘The Cranes are Flying’ and ‘I Am Cuba’.

The former is the only Soviet film to have ever won the Palme d’Or- and one of mother Russia’s most cherished pieces of cinema. The latter is loved the world over for its revelatory camerawork and incensed celebration (and criticism) of life in the buzzing heart of the New World. Then there’s Letter Never Sent, a comparably miniscule tale of four researchers sent out into the Siberian tundra to hunt for diamond deposits. And frankly: Films this fucking good sometimes they feel like they were custom-built to be forgotten…


Right from the instant, there’s something so chilling about watching this nature team looking right into the lens, waving us off in a helicopter that spends a full minute showing us how tiny they really are. The gruelling war of attrition between their wide-eyed hope and the hungry maw of nature is crystal clear from the very first shot.


The way the camera pushes through this dense patch of foliage- almost documentary-style in these people’s intimate space. Letter Never Sent doesn’t really have a plot and yet it never feels like an ‘art’ film- director Mikhail Kalatozov’s fascination with humanity only pulls it closer to home the further we wander from conventional storytelling.

The first spoken dialogue being narration. Again, I think there’s something subtly magic you can find by disembodying dramatic elements and forcing us into the personal space of a character. The gorgeous vista around this man means absolutely nothing compared to his love letter.

Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky worked with Kalatozov on his three most acclaimed films, between 1957 and 1963 and it cannot be overstated how much they add to eachother’s work. Urusevsky’s floating, high-angle dreaminess combined with Kalatozov’s multiple exposure editing give these early ‘memories’ a haunted quality- as if even from the start our main characters comforting thoughts of his lover are abstracted in some way. Its like he’s so desperate to cling onto her that he’s crushing them out of shape.

The overlaid fire, just a visual trick for now- but foreshadowing the horrors to come…


The way the depth of the landscape outside of the tent sucks a little of the claustrophobic tension out of this ensemble staging. I mean, can you imagine being sent on a months’ long trip with strangers like this?

This huge dutch tilt during such a quiet, reserved scene. Just shows how elegantly confident photography can reveal your characters.

The sinister tension Urusevsky’s ever so slightly too distant camera adds to this joyous moment.

Seeing them again, I have little doubt Kalatozov & Urusevsky’s single-shot scenes, lengthy tracking shots and distinctive use of focus to bring characters in and out of the same shots as they go on must have had a profound effect on Andrei Tarkovsky- who was still studying cinema at the time.

And in the same breath, how the hand-held, careening freedom of movement they experiment with might have caught Sergei Parajanov’s eye… 

How unfathomably gorgeous such simple, natural locations can be when lit the right way.

How beautiful it is to see that Kalatozov made his greatest films right at the end of his otherwise forgotten career. Equally how telling it is that after the colossal success of his previous work ‘The Cranes are Flying’, he chose to direct a project about people scouring the whole of Siberia for just a few tiny diamonds...

Again, Letter Never Sent’s fusion of plotless art cinema with burning, relentless humanity is something so many film-makers on either side of the fence could really learn from. Every inventive, often risky creative choice is just another step towards expressing our most desperate desires.

Actress Tatiana Samoilova’s speechless, overwhelmed tangle of emotions when she finds the first diamonds just a few seconds after she was a hair away from being assaulted. The fact the Soviet film industry suffocated this star so exceptionally gifted in grace and earnest wonder is a crime against cinema.

This kaleidoscopic rush of euphoria through the blindingly bright, deliriously overexposed woodland might be the most singularly joyous film moment of a decade that has only just begun.

The way you can catch the rest of the cast going blank in the face of Samoilova’s acting. Really, how do you react to that kind of talent?

The way a falling tree cuts off the music so abruptly during the forestfire. This kind of film-bending style was being used across Europe in the fledgling Nouvelle Vague but god damn does it hit so much harder when there’s so much emotion riding on it. Sitting with the deafening silence of these people losing everything they’ve worked for is like having your guts kicked out.

The Moscow party official’s hearty congratulations playing over their escape- totally indifferent to their pleas for rescue. Really does make me wonder how stupid these infamously brutal censors were when you transpose criticism just a half-step above subtlety.

This harrowingly human moment where she stops and seems to give up hope while her colleagues try the busted radio. Even if they survive- they know they’ll be sent back to find the diamonds again. The state education they’ve been given has pointed every road they’ve ever known right back to this.

The fitting, indecipherably gorgeous shot Criterion chose to inspire their excellent cover art.

How brutally Urusevsky’s framing robs this little romantic moment of any possible comfort.

The ghoulish freeze of silence Kalatozov lets hang after the rescue helicopter misses them.

And the purity of rain being played so blissfully, in spite of its natural source. In some ways I think this film is even more chilling for never straying too far onto one side between natural splendour and its savage, merciless process. This is a whole world, and we’re only its guests.

These double-dolly esque shots of Andrei being carried along, contemplating his end.

Seriously, can there not be an extra awards category for best silhouette photography?!

The way Kalatozov blocks faces in this scene.

Urusevsky shrouding the survivors’ faces in total darkness while they decide whether to put the wounded Andrei out of his misery.

The desolate, horrifying beauty of the decimated forest.

Samoilova screaming with the last shred of her hope right into the camera as the thunderstorm swallows her.

The expedition’s leader, Sabinine, collapsing into the marsh over this frame as the rescue plane misses them again.

Andrei Tarvkosky said something beautiful about film-making being a means, or at least an attempt, to purify the soul before death- or in some way prepare spiritually for the inevitable. That’s absolutely nothing against popcorn flicks trying to distract audiences from exactly that- but there’s something buried in this scene that brings me so close to that idea: These two helpless cases trading simple, unadorned words on what they believe will be their last night on earth.

Samoilova’s face gradually being abstracted by tides of blur as her life slips away, taking more ground with each pass.

How distant from reality Urusevsky’s photography is allowed to get the further Letter Never Sent trudges on. It so eloquently touches the aesthetic of genuinely crossing the void.

This overwhelming rush of images as delirium overtakes Sabinine. Stunning cinema.

Call me a morbid nut (please), but this is it. This quiet, elegiac shot of Sabinina drifting into a static frame and catching on the bank- motionless- caked in snow- should be the final shot of the film. It’s got such an otherworldly gravitas that seals the tragedy of the expedition. Naturally, rational logic or the Russian culture department took hold and tacked on a happy ending- which is wonderful and affirming- but to think so many richly intelligent, worldly young people must have been sent out in the dark by countless countries in the last- unknown centuries- only to be taken by the cold and forgotten. This film is a vital monument to those innocents damned by their own fascinations- and a startling call to attention as the world around us is beginning to fight back…

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