Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1959 feature Letter Never Sent pits science against superstition, rationality against intuition, brains against brawn, and reason against love in a cautionary tale that celebrates the Soviet drive toward industrial supremacy while suggesting that progress comes at a cost.
A team of four searches for diamonds in the Central Siberian Plateau. Leader Sabinin, guide Sergei, and geologists (and lovers) Andrei and Tanya seek the vein of stones that scientists have determined must exist based on the region’s geological similarity to the diamond fields of South Africa. Eager both to secure personal glory and also to end Soviet dependence on foreign diamonds, the team pursues their task persistently, methodically, and relentlessly. Their work pays off. They find the diamonds, but before they can reach the extraction point a forest fire drives them further into the wilderness.
Sabanin writes to his wife every day, augmenting the letter he neglected to send before embarking on the plane flight to Siberia. Often these scenes, along with others, are overlaid with flames, foreshadowing the disaster to come, but also establishing the elemental nature of the story, anchored by strong emotions like Sabinin’s feelings for his wife. “All the elements—earth, water, air, fire—feature prominently and propel the plot”, writes Dina Iordanova in “Refining Fire”, the essay included in the DVD booklet that assesses Letter Never Sent in the context of Kalatozov’s other films and Soviet cinema.
Earth (the team moves tons of it in their quest for diamonds), water (they struggle through raging rivers and streams, and later banks of snow), air (fanning the flames, but also animating the long grass that the four move through in stunningly kinetic shots set up by cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky) also become characters in a plot that at times seems more about alchemy than geology.
“So, it turns out love is rarer than diamonds?” Sabinin asks the unattached Sergei, who unbeknownst to the other man has fallen in love with Tanya. Not on this expedition. Indeed, the conflict generated by the love triangle of Andrei, Tanya, and Sergei and the quest plot climax at the same time, in a bizarre scene mixing scientific discovery with desire and wish fulfillment.
In a grave-shaped pit, Tanya inspects clods of dirt while Sergei breaks up earth. The pounding of Sergei’s pick is replaced by an echoing heartbeat as he stops working and turns longingly to Tanya. Before he can kiss her, declare his love, or assault her (his intentions aren’t clear) she rebuffs him. He then leaves the pit, while she collapses in tears, which turn to laughter as she regards the clod clutched in her fist.
When Andrei arrives she shows him the much-anticipated evidence of diamonds, but it’s never clear when exactly she has realized what she’s found. It’s as if the dirt transforms in her hand, fueled by Sergei’s feelings and her own.
The catastrophe that follows the discovery also seems related to affect, a result of the team’s gloating hubris. Tanya and Andrei run through the tall grass, he brandishing a hammer. The four stand on a cliff overlooking the river, hurrah, and fire their rifles into the air. The night before their planned departure, Tanya observes that for the first time, Sabinin isn’t writing to his wife. Instead, he’s working on the map that will lead others to the mother lode. “Good, good, good for us”, sings Tanya as she skips through the camp. They muse over how history will remember them and consider where a memorial to their heroic success would best be located.
“Nature itself has turned against us”, Sabinin says of the forest fire that surrounds them. Coming on the heels of Sputnik, launched October 4, 1957, Letter Never Sent seems a call for balance between science and nature, technology and the elements, the balance embodied by Sabinin. Exhibiting none of the limitations of the others—the brawn without brains of Sergei, the weak intellectualism of Andrei, the tendency toward frivolity of Tanya—Sabinin represents the whole person. It’s Sabinin who perseveres, who guides the team after Sergei loses his way and Andrei becomes injured.
Sabinin’s ultimate allegiance remains a mystery. We never see what pages the doctor pulls out of Sabinin’s shirt when rescue finally comes. Is it the letter never sent, or the map? What would he hold dear enough, so close to the end, to place it next to his heart: the document that would ensure his immortality, or the testament of his love for his wife?