Three Films: Mikhail Kalatazov and Sergei Urusevsky
These two might not be the biggest names in the history of Soviet cinema, but during the 1950’s director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky formed an impressive creative partnership which would lead to the release of three films over a 7 year period. The first was The Cranes Are Flying (1957), a Second World War drama which became the only Soviet film to ever win the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Next came the more experimental Letter Never Sent (1959), and a couple of years later the two began working on their biggest and boldest production, Soy Cuba (1964).
During these years the pair developed a distinct visual style built upon striking imagery and unconventional camerawork, which only seemed to grow more ambitious with every project. This development was partly thanks to a major shift in Soviet politics in 1953, with the advent of the “Khrushchev Thaw”, a comparative 'cooling off' period following Stalin's death which made room for reduced censorship and more experimental approaches to filmmaking across the Soviet Union, to a certain extent.
This new phase paved the way for Kalatazov and Urusevsky to put new creative ideas into practice, which was soon there to see in each of the films that followed. There are many aspects of their work that catch the eye - the use of lighting is one of them, the choice of angles is another, but nothing is more surprising than the movement of the camera, and the best examples of this can be found in the use of tracking shots.
Generally speaking, a tracking shot involves moving the camera in one direction or another while following a subject, usually to show the growth of an idea or emotion in a space. That being said, there are a lot of different ways of doing it. When it comes to Kalatazov and Urusevsky's films there are two things that really stand out. The first is the way in which the camera moves through space, and the second is how the camera movement reflects the emotion of the scene.
Here's one example which appears around the 25 minute mark of The Cranes Are Flying (1957). The film wasn’t the pair's first collaboration, but it was without doubt their most popular. It says a lot about the emotional and moral impact of the Second World War on the Soviet home front and its success at Cannes in 1958 brought their distinct style to a wider audience. It also launched the career of its star actress Tatiana Samoilova, in her role as the main character, Veronika.
The shot shows Veronika rushing to say goodbye to her lover before he leaves for the frontline, with the camera in constant pursuit, weaving through the crowd and desperate to keep up with her, to the point where the movement of the camera does more than observe her anxiety, it expresses it. The camera then does the unexpected. It cranes above the crowded space to give you a completely different perspective of the situation, and allows your eyes to follow Veronika as she makes her way through the procession of tanks, with her lover nowhere in sight.
There's an even earlier point in the same film where the camerawork expresses the feelings of a character. The emotion is different, but the result is the same, and it's achieved with the help of a soaring soundtrack. This time the previous situation is reversed and it's Veronika's boyfriend, Boris, who hurries to say goodbye at a time when they both oblivious to the war that will change their lives profoundly.
After the success of The Cranes Are Flying, Kalatozov and Urusevsky teamed up again for Letter Never Sent (1959), a film that follows a small team of Soviet geologists on the search for diamonds in Central Siberia. They set off on their expedition in high spirits but soon find themselves fighting for survival in the midst of a forest fire. Once again Tatiana Samoilova starred in a leading role, and although the film wasn't an international success, it still holds up as a great example of Kalatozov and Urusevsky's bold and adventurous approach to filmmaking. On this occasion, the standout tracking shot is the opening scene.
This one perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film. It starts off with what looks like an optimistic farewell, then, as the geologists begin to fade into the landscape, the scene takes on a different kind of feel. This time it's the restricted movement of the camera and the accompanying music that gives the scene an eerie quality, and the longer it goes on, the more it feels like a dark premonition for the events that are about to follow.
But when it comes to tracking shots, it's tough to find a more extravagant example than the third of these three films.
The story behind Soy Cuba (1964) is an unusual one. It was commissioned by Soviet and Cuban authorities in the early 1960’s at a formative stage of the Cold War, as the two socialist states looked to marry their ideological interests through the medium of film. The idea was to capture the character of the Cuban Revolution and it was for all intents and purposes envisioned as a work of propaganda.
Kalatazov was appointed as director and arrived in Havana in 1961 with Urusevsky, a small Soviet film crew and a rare opportunity. The team was essentially given creative and financial backing to tell the story of a country that it knew next to nothing about. Nearly 3 years later, after working closely with the newly founded Cuban Film Institute, the film was finally finished and the result was a hypnotising vision of 1950's Cuba, told in the style of an epic poem that's divided into four stories. There are so many different elements that come together in Soy Cuba and the cinematography is right at the heart of them.
There are a few tracking shots to pick from, but the two examples that you'll see further below are by far the most astonishing. Both make you wonder how they were even possible from a logistics point of view, not to mention the huge amount of planning and co-ordination that must have gone into them. Interestingly, the shots were made possible through the use of cable cars, and by hooking and unhooking the cameraman to a series of wires, with the camera strapped to his chest.
The first shot comes very early on and depicts pre-revolutionary Havana, under the influence of rooftop beauty contests and rock and roll. It has often been compared with the pool scene from Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) and it's easy to see why.
The second comes around three quarters of the way through the film to drive home the sense of pride and sacrifice that the revolution has instilled in the Cuban people.
Instead of following a specific character, each shot draws your attention to the way in which people interact with one another and with the space around them. The camera never stays still, always moving from one position to another, and the longer each scene goes on the more time you have to contemplate what you're seeing. It also gives you more time to understand what each scene says about the country itself, Cuba, which is essentially the main character in the film. Both of these shots say a lot about the nature of the connection between the people and their country at two very different moments in its past, and they both make for captivating pieces of cinema.
After two-short lived premieres in Havana and Moscow, Soy Cuba was badly received by Cuban and Soviet authorities alike, and it was quickly withdrawn from cinemas before fading into obscurity. Among other things, it was accused of being misrepresentative and for drawing more attention to style, than to the reality of events. It then remained more or less forgotten until after the fall of the Soviet Union, nearly twenty years after Kalatazov and Urusevsky had both passed away.
The film resurfaced in the early 90’s, first at a handful of American film festivals and then on VHS with the help of two enthusiastic fans; Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Since then it has gained global recognition and is now held up as a landmark in filmmaking that was very nearly forgotten.
Following the film's rejection by the authorities, Kalatozov and Urusevky both returned to the Soviet Union and continued to work on separate projects until their respective deaths in 1973 and 1974. As far as I know Soy Cuba was their fourth and final collaboration, and although it's a shame that they did not go onto create more together, their achievements as filmmakers are there to see in these three films.
All three offer something different and there's a lot more to them than just complex and intricate camera movement. The use of lighting, sound and composition are just a few other aspects that make Kalatozov and Urusevsky stand out from other filmmakers. At the same time, the use of tracking shots makes these films a lot of fun to watch. They work on a dramatic level as well as a visual one, and it can be interesting to compare them with those of other directors and cinematographers, both old and new. Their style may not be for everyone, it's certainly extravagant and draws a lot of attention to the camera, but these three films still hold up today and each one is well worth watching.
So where can you find them?
Both The Cranes Are Flying and Letter Never Sent are currently playing on the Criterion Channel's online streaming service, just click the logo below to find out more. As for Soy Cuba, it's well worth buying the DVD release if you can. It comes with a couple of extras, including an interview with Martin Scorsese and a good retrospective documentary, both of which are great if you're interested in finding out more about how the film was made. You can find a cheap copy online, I got one from a UK store called Mr Bongo which has made a lot of great films available on DVD in recent years. There's a link to their website below.
By Lester Love