Three Films: Mikhail Kalatazov and Sergei Urusevsky
These two might not be the biggest names when it comes to Soviet cinema, but during the1950’s director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky forged a distinct creative partnership which would result in the release of three standout films over a seven 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 striking visual style built around dazzling imagery, intricate camerawork and an experimental approach, which would capture the imaginations of audiences on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and eventually test the limits of Soviet censorship at a pivotal moment during the Cold War.
Kalatazov and Urusevsky were just two of the many filmmakers that strove to redraw the landscape of Soviet cinema in the post-Stalin era, in a new chapter which would later be referred to as the “Khrushchev Thaw”, a 'cooling off' period which made room for reduced censorship across the arts and more lenient approaches to making films.
The phase of liberalization lasted no more than 10 years in total, coming to an abrupt end in 1964, but this brief and momentous shift in policy would enable the duo, as well as the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky, Larisa Shepitko any many others to bring their own visions of filmmaking to life, in a way which had never been seen before.
The Cranes Are Flying (1957)
Soy Cuba (1964)
There are many aspects of Kalatazov and Urusevsky's work that catch the eye; the use of lighting is one of them, the choice of framing is another, but nothing holds your attention quite like the movement of the camera, and in that respect, the best examples can be found in the use of tracking shots.
Here's a standout sequence 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, and also launched the career of its star actress Tatiana Samoilova, in her role as the main character, Veronika.
Here you see 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 camera movement does far more than capture her anxiety, it embodies it. The camera then does the unexpected by floating above the crowded space to reveal the hopelessness of Veronika's situation, 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 which involves another mesmerising piece of camerawork. The sentiment is different, but again it shows how movement can be used to mirror the emotion of a scene. 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 figures 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, serving as a dark premonition for the journey that lies ahead.
But when it comes to tracking shots and camera movement, it's tough to find more extravagant sequences than those in Kalatazov and Urusevsky's final film, Soy Cuba (1964). The story behind Soy Cuba 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, divided into four stories.
There are a whole range of standout shots to pick from, but the two examples below are maybe 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. Another standout aspect about these sequences is that they're shot using hand-held cameras, over a decade before steadicam technology had been invented, and were supposedly made possible through the use of cable cars, or by hooking and unhooking the cameraman to a series of wires, with the camera strapped to his chest while he was suspended in mid-air.
The first shot comes very early on and depicts pre-revolutionary Havana, under the influence of rooftop beauty contests and rock and roll:
And 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 connection between a group of people as a whole. The camera never stays still, constantly moving from one position to another, and the longer each scene goes on, the longer you have to contemplate what it says about the country itself at a particular moment in its history. 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 and their endeavour as filmmakers are clear to see in these three films.
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