I Am Russia: Three by Mikhail Kalatozov (1957 - 1964)

Courtesy of Mosfilm
While many collectives of world cinema will refer to 1920s Soviet Union filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein as the father of contemporary Russian cinema for his still-influential epic Battleship Potemkin followed by his Ivan the Terrible film series as well as Andrei Tarkovsky as subsequently the most popular Russian filmmaker who ever lived, one name remains curiously overlooked despite winning a Palme d’Or in 1958 as well as making one of the boldest feature films on the face of the Earth.  That honor goes to People’s Artist of the USSR winner Mikhail Kalatozov who from a purely technical standpoint was arguably Russia’s very own Fritz Lang, a cinematic scientist who broke the cinematic mold in such a way that his films still influence major filmmakers today.
A wholly original artist whose work from the mid-30s onward changed considerably with the shift to what was called “the period of de-Stalinization” set into motion by Nikita Kruschev, Mikhail Kalatozov was already a seasoned industry veteran, working since 1930 before his first picture Salt for Svanetia was banned by the Soviets and he went without work for nine years.  Upon Kruschev’s new pledge towards artistic freedom (though still faced with censorship in some cases), Kalatozov crossed paths with cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky and the two joined forces to more or less revamp the face of new Russian cinema from top to bottom.

Initially a writer and cameraman who worked his way up to fully fledged film directing, eventually landing him at Mosfilm where he would embark on the most successful project of his career with The Cranes Are Flying.  A film which put Kalatozov on the world cinema map and rightfully earned the coveted Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, quickly generating two more less successful but no less bold or indelible cinematic endeavors in its wake, the 1959 survival adventure film Letter Never Sent and the revolutionary 1964 Soviet-Cuban propaganda epic I Am Cuba. 
Though neither subsequent picture enjoyed the accolades and adulation of The Cranes Are Flying with I Am Cuba nearly ending the director’s career before embarking on his last film The Red Tent with Sean Connery in a joint Italian-Russian co-production, these three distinctive pictures though very different in form and intent nevertheless represent writer-director Mikhail Kalatozov at the peak of his creative powers.  As a from-the-ground-up cinematic innovator whose astonishing visual flair and pyrotechnics remain so astounding and inspiring, Kalatozov’s three most celebrated films have had such a profound impact on world cinema (particularly Hollywood filmmakers), it is very likely you’ve seen traces of this man’s work in your favorite films without even realizing it.

The Cranes Are Flying (1957)
While most of the rest of the world points to World War II as, just that, the Second World War, in Russia the period of battle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was fought between 1941 to 1945 in what they called The Great Patriotic War.  A period of Soviet history which saw many, many forthcoming cinematic dramatizations over the next fifty years, the Great Patriotic War left, for much of the Russian populace, unshakable scars to their physical and emotional well-being. 

Which brings us to Mikhail Kalatozov’s towering cinematic monument The Cranes Are Flying, the first and only Soviet film to ever win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a film which presented a happy-go-lucky Moscow couple, Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Alexei Batalov), who are madly in love.  But then WWII begins and Boris is drafted into the frontlines, leaving Veronica alone fending off the hardships of her once idyllic home life destroyed completely by bombing raids in addition to thwarting off her lover’s lecherous cousin who somehow or another managed to evade the draft.
Adapted from his own play by Viktor Rozov and sort of like a Russian Gone with the Wind concerning the experience of a young woman whose world is turned inside out by war, The Cranes Are Flying plays like yin and yang, offering a glimpse of the joyful romance shared between the young couple followed by the same grounds once walked now covered in rubble, gasoline and bullet casings.  Much of the film’s strength comes from not only Kalatozov and his cinematographer Urusevsky’s phantasmagorical imagery, including some absolutely brilliant use of editing and superimpositions by editor Mariya Timofeyeva, but by the film’s overwhelming original score by Moisey Vaynberg. 

Take for instance a sequence in which a soldier in the middle of a barren winter landscape is gunned down and the film abruptly erupts in a series of dutch angles, images layered on top of one another and an explosion of sound and music, unleashing pure sensory overload.  We literally see a man’s entire life flash before his eyes in the moment of death or dying, represented through rapid-fire editing and several different scenes shown in brief flashback.  It’s a technical effects laden sequence laced with complex film editing techniques which would make even the legendary Fritz Lang jealous.  Quite simply, it is bravura filmmaking of the highest order made by a man who was years ahead of his Russian contemporaries at the time.

Of course, The Cranes Are Flying wouldn’t be half as powerful were it not for the radiant Tatiana Samoilova who brings to the role of Veronika a kind of Audrey Hepburn vibe to her character.  Much of the film, Kalatozov’s camera is trained on Samoilova’s face from her clean and bubbly smile glimpsed in the first half to a dirty and strained distant gaze drowning in wartime in the second half.  Veronika starts off as an ebullient carefree spirit but over the course of the movie has all traces of her joyful former self beaten and burned out of her.  As a viewer, we can’t help but empathize with Veronika’s ordeal and unfairly dealt hand as circumstances, time and tide work to erode away whatever feelings Veronika and Boris might’ve still had for one another.

The first real recognizable female face of Soviet cinema, decades before Natalya Negoda’s iconic turn as a Soviet sex symbol in film with Little Vera, Tatiana Samoilova helped cement The Cranes Are Flying as one of the first Russian films European and western filmgoers could easily identify with.  Nobody wants a war and everyone knows what it feels like to fall in and out of love for reasons beyond our own control and despite the differences in language and locale, this is a story just about everyone can relate to.  An emotional powerhouse with dynamic groundbreaking filmmaking with a powerful heroine at the epicenter, The Cranes Are Flying is one of the best films ever made about the power of war to make or break even the most intensely committed of human relationships.
Letter Never Sent (1964)
Just a couple of years after making seismic waves around the global cinematic arena, director Mikhail Kalatozov and actress Tatiana Samoilova reunited for the director’s next project which is spoken of the same breath as The Cranes Are Flying but as a picture couldn’t be more different in terms of visual design, structure and ultimately how the thing plays out onscreen.  Shifting gears from the Second World War to the endurance of wading through the freezing cold central Siberian terrain, playwright Viktor Rozov also reteamed with Kalatozov and screenwriters Valeri Osipov (based on his own play) and Grigori Koltunov to create a film that invariably paved the way for such tense outdoors and woodsy survival thrillers as Sorcerer, The Edge and most recently The Revenant.

Dubbed Letter Never Sent, the film zeroes in on a guide named Konstantin (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) who is tasked with chaperoning three geologists, Tanya (Tatiana Samoilova), Andrei (Vasily Livanov) and Sergei (Yevgeni Urbansky), to the Siberian mountains in search of elusive diamonds.  On the flight, Konstantin pens a letter to his wife about the expedition, meanwhile Andrei and Sergei start butting heads over their mutual affections for Tanya.  

Soon the four finally do find their hidden buried treasure, but it comes at a cost when the crew awakens in the forest one morning to find it engulfed in flames and from here it becomes an endurance test ala The Cranes Are Flying or more recently Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent as the forces of the natural world begin chipping away at our cast of characters piece by piece.  With a raging forest fire blazing on and encroaching winter weather, the film becomes a survival story as our geologists press on against unforgiving elements.

Far bleaker and more visceral than The Cranes Are Flying with a simple-minded goal of survival, Letter Never Sent more or less drops its cast of characters in rugged terrain and watches them flounder when the world around them unleashes a kind of Old Testament level of natural fury.  Adorned with extraordinary wide-angled cinematography which seems to make the forests come alive and feel that much more entangling and an evocative, doom-filled score by Nikolai Kryukov which even hints at electronica at times, Letter Never Sent is like being in Heaven turning to Hell in slow motion as the battle against the elements only intensifies.
Unlike The Cranes Are Flying, however, Tatiana Samoilova is not the film’s main protagonist, however.  Soon over time it becomes clear Letter Never Sent is being shouldered by our tour guide played by Innokenty Smoktunovsky who finds himself in over his head with the geologists who have their own sets of skeletons in the closet, boiling over as their circumstances grow more dire.  Watching the film and the endurances ahead faced by the characters, you can’t help but fear for the actors some.  Take for instance a showstopping sequence where the group awakens to find the forest around them is ablaze.  Combined with the production pyrotechnic effects and Kalatozov’s arresting camerawork, you really feel like you’re being burned up with the characters even if we know it’s just an illusion.

Though a follow up to The Cranes Are Flying and arguably the superior film, Letter Never Sent was slated to go into the 1960 Cannes Film Festival before being pulled at the last minute as Kalatozov later remarked the film wasn’t ready to be shown yet.  Moreover, Soviet critics blasted Kalatozov for focusing more on the film’s cinematography than giving us a main character to identify with and rally behind.  That said, the film has since gone on to be the one that catapulted Kalatozov into the pantheon of the all-time greatest directors in the world.  Despite being unseen for decades, in 1995 the film was rescued by Francis Ford Coppola before being shown to western audiences.  Further still, director Rian Johnson pointed to Letter Never Sent as a singular influence on his Star Wars film The Last Jedi.
Seen now, the magnificence and grandeur of Letter Never Sent is such that one viewing simply won’t let you absorb all of its beautiful (and terrible) wonderment in.  One of the most visually astonishing films ever created, Kalatozov’s galvanizing adventure film, though separated by years and a language barrier, remains as pulverizing and jaw droppingly beautiful as ever.  Not everyone emerged unscathed from such an ambitious undertaking though, as actor Vasily Livanov suffered lifelong vocal chord damage shooting a windy scene at forty degrees below zero.  Nevertheless, for the viewing public Letter Never Sent has lost none of its staggering visual power and ability to convey the feeling of physical endurance in a heated battle for survival in the frozen tundra. 
I Am Cuba (1964)
The film that capstoned (and nearly ended) director Mikhail Kalatozov’s career and one that was nearly forgotten completely at the time of its release before being rediscovered by American filmmakers decades later, the Soviet-Cuban co-super-production I Am Cuba is an epic anthological tapestry of life in Cuba as seen, heard and felt through the eyes, ears and soul of the country of Cuba itself.  Revolutionary in form yet propagandistic in intent, the film I Am Cuba is a picture like no other before or since.  Unlike the previously released The Cranes Are Flying or Letter Never Sent, I Am Cuba has no main character, no conventional narrative, no main plotline.  Rather it is a series of vignettes experienced by Cuba who whispers to the viewer throughout in a rather feminine voice.

Broken into four short stories intended to portray “the suffering of the Cuban people”, the first story details the disparity between impoverished Cubans and wealthy American-run casinos before moving onto a farmer’s tale of woe when his landlord sells his farmland to American investors.  Later still we see a group of American sailors who try to hunt down and rape a young Cuban woman before being rescued by a bystander at the last minute.  Further still, we’re given imagery of the Havana revolution in a very overtly pro-Castro montage of Cuban revolutionaries carrying guns as the camera gazes up upon them. 
After the 1959 Cuban Revolution and dissolution of diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961, Cuba turned to the Soviet Union for film related partnerships and soon got in touch with Kalatozov who was given immense financial support from both Russia and Cuba as well as a wealth of creative freedom.  One of the first movies to invent a watertight camera lens with a special periscope cleaner, the film is best remembered for a now iconic sequence where the camera seems to climb down the side of a building to a swimming pool area before following one of the vacationing swimmers underwater into the pool.  Paul Thomas Anderson rather sneakily reused this shot in his film Boogie Nights but not without giving due credit to Kalatozov’s film as the primary influence of that shot.

Filmed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, including (at one point) utilizing over 1,000 Cuban soldiers for some shots, the film was also one of the very earliest progenitors of the soon-to-be Steadicam, including an apparatus that strapped the camera to a vest worn by the camera operator.  There are also times when the camera seems to float in midair, an effect accomplished over half a century before drone photography would become commonplace.  Further still, there’s one sequence where the camera seems to leap from rooftop to rooftop and not a track of technical equipment ever shows up in the shot, making it all the more seamless and eye-defying.
Despite everything intended by Fidel Castro (who watched all the rushes during the shoot) and the USSR, neither Russian nor Cuban viewers or critics took to I Am Cuba when it came out.  Cuban viewers thought the film undermined Cubans while Russian filmgoers didn’t find it revolutionary enough, more or less making the film for its intended audience a failure.  Though made in 1964, nobody outside of Russia or Cuba had ever heard of I Am Cuba until 1992 when the film was rediscovered by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola who joined forces with Milestone Films and (for a short time) released the film commercially in America. 
While overtly a piece of propaganda and narratively speaking a vastly inferior work to The Cranes Are Flying or Letter Never Sent, I Am Cuba nevertheless has become a major source of inspiration for American filmmakers able to filter out the messages and just enjoy the revolutionary structure and design of the film.  More of a dazzlingly beautiful artifact of experimental avant-garde filmmaking as mainstream narrative cinema than an involving story you can identify with, I Am Cuba though meant to be anti-American turned out to be the best thing to happen to American movies when it was unearthed in the early 1990s. 

Seen now, the film is an encapsulation of every innovative cinematic technique Mikhail Kalatozov employed during his career including some new nifty surprises along the way.  Regardless of intent, you can filter out the point of view and just look at the whole thing as a truly original filmic construct, a movie that in essence has to rethink the way to make a film and tell a story. 
Creatively speaking there has never been a film remotely like it before or since, though some may point to Darren Aronofsky’s mother! as a more recent example of a filmmaker trying to humanize a land or country.   Though personally not my favorite Kalatozov (Letter Never Sent earns that top honor), I Am Cuba whatever your political leanings are remains on its terms an extraordinary motion picture made by one of Russia’s most distinguished filmmaking pioneers who didn’t make a home run with this one but nevertheless clearly swung as hard as he could.

--Andrew Kotwicki