Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1959 film Letter Never Sent begins with the following text:
To those who, in any field of human endeavor — be it the settlement of wild and desolate lands or the daring rush into space — follow in the difficult path of the pioneers, and to the Soviet people, this film is dedicated.
In this particular story, those modern pioneers are the members of a geological expedition, and when they first appear onscreen, they’re waving goodbye to the helicopter that’s just dropped them off in the Siberian wilderness. Rather than showing their point of view, the camera is positioned in the helicopter itself, so that the four human figures on the ground appear increasingly minuscule, dwarfed by their surroundings — aptly foreshadowing what’s to come.
The team, consisting of young geologists Andrei (Vasiliy Livanov) and Tanya (Tatyana Samoylova), the slightly older Konstantin (Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy) and guide Sergei (Evgeniy Urbanskiy), has been sent to Siberia in search of diamonds. They aren’t mere treasure hunters out for personal gain; instead, they hope to find the gemstones for the good of the Soviet people as a whole, aiding the country’s industry and space program and reducing its dependence on foreign powers. Scientific studies have indicated that this area is geologically similar to the diamond-rich South African plateau, and even though three previous expeditions have failed to turn up anything, this group sets out “optimistic and full of hope,” as Konstantin reports back to base via their radio.
Science is critical to their work, of course, but the human element, the physical and emotional side of things, is just as significant, if not always helpful. Conditions are difficult, between the unwelcoming natural environment and the backbreaking, fruitless labor, taking a heavy toll on morale. Another, less foreseeable problem arises when Sergei develops romantic feelings for Tanya, who’s already involved with Andrei; the two men actually come to blows during a hunting excursion after the more intellectual Andrei tries to reason Sergei out of his infatuation. “That’s how man is different from the beasts,” he says. “He’s able to keep his primal urges under control.”
While emotion can be a negative factor, something to subdue for the good of the expedition, it can also have a positive, motivational effect. In an ongoing letter to his wife, Vera (Galina Kozhakina), that serves as a kind of diary, Konstanin writes that “some irresistible force drives me on and on again,” despite his sorrow at leaving her behind. Later on, when the diamonds continue to elude the group and all hope seems lost, something beyond reason prevents him from giving up. On the verge of a breakdown, he tells himself in a desperate internal monologue that the presence of the gemstones has “been proved in theory. And I feel it. My intuition doesn’t lie. Why doesn’t it? It does, so often. Or maybe it never lies. What is intuition? It means feeling without knowing. But I both know it and feel it.” At long last, his intuition is vindicated when Tanya comes across a diamond, and her words to Konstantin indicate how much the discovery matters to all of them: “Does it mean that you, Sergei, Andrei and I haven’t lived in vain?”
Their elation turns out to be fleeting, however. “What a disaster. What a terrible disaster,” Konstantin says in a voiceover, addressing his absent wife. “Nature herself has turned against us.” She hasn’t exactly been on their side up until this point — they’ve had to wend their way through close-growing trees, wade in shin-deep water and endure pouring rain, among other challenges — but the forest fire that breaks out just before they intend to leave their camp poses a grave threat to everything they’ve worked for and to their very lives. For all of their scientific achievements, their intelligence, their determination, the four of them are essentially powerless in the face of something as elementary as fire. The radio even fails at this crucial juncture, rendering them unable to tell anyone where they are and what’s happening around them, so that they’re utterly at nature’s mercy.
Incapable of fighting back, all they can do is push forward and try to survive long enough for a search party to find them. As the situation grows increasingly bleak, the main thing that keeps them from surrendering to death is their desire to share the location of the diamonds with their colleagues. It’s not so much their duty as scientists as their duty as patriots that compels them. Just as the four of them are dwarfed by nature, they’re similarly dwarfed by their country and the collective good of its people, for which they’re willing to pay the ultimate price if need be. “My life isn’t my own,” Konstantin tells Vera in another voiceover. His attitude is a noble, admirable one, but that doesn’t make Letter Never Sent any less tragic on an individual level. Scientists, heroes, model Soviet citizens, sacrificial lambs — while the characters may fit any or all of these roles, they’re also ordinary human beings who happen to be caught up in something much bigger than themselves.
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