The Unfinished Letter (1960) by Mikhail Kalatozov: Fire and Ice | LeMagduCine

Associating a filmmaker with his most famous works can be particularly reductive, and Potemkin Films provides further proof of this. Thus, if we most often associate Mikhail Kalatozov with his masterpiece When the storks pass (1957, Palme d’or at Cannes), even at Soy Cuba (1964), we thus forget the feature film he shot between the two. Failed to exit, The unfinished letter (1960) is nevertheless a dazzling success. The director and his cinematographer Sergueï Ouroussevski wrote a new glorious page in their collaboration, through this metaphysical survival film, shot on location in extreme conditions. His visual experiments – in the great tradition of Soviet filmmakers – and his prodigious aesthetic qualities bring him closer to a true organic experience of Siberian nature.

Four characters are landed in the solitude of the forests of Yakutia, in northeastern Siberia, filled with this mixture of enthusiasm and iron will that meets the demands of socialist propaganda. The vital energy of which they are the symbols is that of the Soviet man who does not doubt for a moment that nature will submit to him. The young couple of researchers formed by Tania and Andreï are accompanied by the guide Sergei Stepanovitch, a veteran of the taiga, while the expedition is led by Constantin, who writes from the beginning of the film a letter to his wife to which the title makes reference.

The cruel indifference of nature, however, dampens the hopes of men. Each day of work brings its share of disappointments: the fabulous diamond deposits so fantasized, remain untraceable. In the sylvan and mineral isolation, a deaf threat appears when Sergei falls in love with Tania. Kalatozov has fun leading the spectator on a false track: when Sergei’s desire seems unstoppable, the famous diamonds are discovered! The understandable joy of the team will not last: to the burning fire of human passions which are struggling to be contained, nature responds with an apocalyptic forest fire in the face of which human beings will be put back in their rightful place. That of hunted animals without resources, condemned to a desperate headlong rush. This sudden change of register is not just a screenplay pirouette, it testifies to a fierce desire on the part of Kalatozov and his two screenwriters, Viktor Rozov and Grigori Koltounov, to move away from “documentary prose”, which is too realistic. , from the literary source (the novel of the same name by the writer and geologist Valery Osipov). It also translates the desire to move away from this Soviet propaganda, evident in the symbolism conveyed in the first third of the film. The rest of the story no longer responds, in fact, to the political context of the time aimed at revaluing scientists, presented as national heroes. Kalatozov brushes aside these ideological temptations to give birth to a body of work that leans squarely towards survival film and metaphysics.

Three years after the triumph – both commercial and critical – of When the storks pass, Georgian filmmaker (and former Soviet vice-minister of cinema) Mikhail Kalatozov decides to follow completely different paths. However, he carries in his luggage the actress Tatiana Samoïlova as well as the chief operator Sergueï Ouroussevski. The Kalatozov/Ouroussevski duo, who had already distinguished themselves by their technical prowess on When the storks pass, takes advantage this time of a shooting in real decorations to work out a visual proposal as impressive as radical. If there is no shortage of cinematographic works dealing with the fight of man against nature, few are those that succeed in making it an experience that is both organic and poetic. This striking result is the translation of a total symbiosis between the creators – Kalataozov and Ouroussevski – and the whole team, including the actors, totally invested in the project. It was necessary, enthusiasm and conviction, to support an interminable and trying filming in Spartan conditions, in the heart of the Saïan mountains (the Yakutia of the original novel having been considered inappropriate for the filming). A splendid environment filmed from every angle, including in winter with temperatures down to -50 degrees. The sacrifices were not made for nothing, because what magnificence! The striking sequences are legion: the huge forest fire, the cemetery of charred trees, the mineral ocean, the flooded steppes, the winter cold and finally the thawing river. A magnificent tribute to the taiga in all its forms.

In addition, this extraordinary setting has allowed artists to surpass themselves. The visual experimentation is in the image of the project: total. Camera in permanent motion, close-ups on the actors in all circumstances (including in the middle of the tall grass or in the heart of the fire!), strange shots through the flames, sequences of memories or imaginaries shot with lenses specially manufactured by the chief operator, etc. Not a single plan is academic, everything exudes mad audacity. The scenario, meanwhile, adapts to the seasons and the misadventures of the quartet of heroes: it is gradually reduced to limit itself, in the end, to the primary fight that is survival. Nothing matters anymore when you struggle to take one more step, to resist one more moment. Hope, again and again, that these terrible efforts will lead to salvation. Even if the latter is nothing more than a crazy dream, that of a city of diamond prospectors, a sort of Eldorado of the Far East

Synopsis : Four geologists go on an expedition to the heart of the forests of Siberia, in search of a diamond deposit. The small group tirelessly explores lands and rivers. Autumn is coming and food is running out, they have to go home. But at the time of the return, the elements are unleashed and they have to face the worst difficulties.

SUPPLEMENTS

To pay homage to this work, which certainly deserves to be known to a wide audience of film lovers, we can always count on Potemkin’s skill and love of cinema. Presented in a very beautiful restored 4K version, the film is embellished with only one video supplement, but it is enough for our happiness. “The Unfinished Letter, a Black Diamond” consists of an analysis of the work by Eugène Zvonkine, historian, teacher and film critic of Russian origin and regular contributor to Cahiers du Cinéma. She qualifies the work as the “missing link” essential to understanding Kalatozov’s transition between the implausible success of storks and Soy Cubawhich he would shoot in 1964. The unfinished letter therefore turns out to be the least known film of the three, and it will be judged harshly upon its release – even by Tarkovski. Zvonkine rightly emphasizes the close collaboration between the director and his cinematographer, who gave birth to a highly experimental approach and a reorganization of the natural sets to their precise vision. The specialist also analyzes the tension between two relationships with nature in the film: on the one hand the Soviet ideal of subjugation of the latter to human will, on the other the romantic idea of ​​nature as an expression of moods of the characters. The opportunity to remember that it is also a film about love! A love that can be wild, as suggested by the predatory presence of the guide Sergei whose desire for Tania no longer seems to be able to be contained, but also a sweet and platonic love, like that expressed in the famous letter suggested by the title. Finally, Eugénie Zvonkine evokes a shooting of all the dangers that “proves the lofty idea that everyone involved had of the importance of the film”, as illustrated by the fact that the actors performed all the stunts themselves. Despite the harsh criticism at the time, their investment was not in vain, as the film still exudes a striking power and authenticity today.

After the visual pleasure, Potemkin has also spared the pleasure of reading by publishing a 60-page booklet that is worth seeing. This contains the testimony of three people who were involved in the filming of The unfinished letter. First of all, the Lithuanian director Gunārs Piesis who took part in it as part of his studies at the VGIK (National Institute of Soviet Cinematography). Excerpts from his internship report allow us to grasp the reality on the ground of an unusual shoot, but also the artistic symbiosis between Kalatozov and Ouroussevski as well as their attention to the smallest details, not only technical but also narrative of the film. The reader is then offered an extract from a diary of a technical member of the film crew, probably one of Ouroussevski’s two assistants, even if the text is not signed. These are also brief memories recorded, this time focusing in particular on the technical production of the film, which was trying in real settings and a hostile climate. Finally, the booklet reproduces a few excerpts from the chapter devoted by artistic director David Vinitski (who will work again with Kalatozov on The Red Tent in 1969) in his book From the Diary of an Art Director, published in 1980. A testimony perfectly complementary to the two others concerning the creation of the film, the control of the environment… but also the dangers incurred. Here is a very interesting reading which completes this Blu-ray as a remarkable edition of a work that we take an incredible pleasure in (re)discovering!

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Blu-ray Edition Supplement:

  • “The Unfinished Letter, a black diamond”: analysis of the film by Eugénie Zvonkine, teacher-researcher in cinema (25 min)
  • Booklet with observation report, filming diary, memories of David Vinitski (artistic director) (60 pages)

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The Unfinished Letter (1960) by Mikhail Kalatozov: Fire and Ice | LeMagduCine