Mikhail Kalatozov’s film career followed a circuitous path. By dint of birth, he belonged to the zeitgeist of the 20s, the generation of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Kozintsev and Vertov. However the long gaps in his filmography did not allow for a consistent development of cinematic style and theme. These ruptures are results of the fluctuating changes of the Soviet Union’s film policy. It’s shift from the avant-garde in the 1920s to a major cog in Stalin’s propaganda factory and finally its resurgence during the “thaw” of de-Stalinization. A Georgian by birth, Kalatozov’s early career had strong local roots. At the Tiblisi Film Studio, he apprenticed as a camera operator, writer and editor on films such Gulli and Gipsy Blood. His directorial career began with Their Empire and The Blind Woman.
His first major work was the experimental Salt for Svanetia, made in 1930. The film was an ethnographic portrait of the distinct culture of the people of Svanetia, a mountainous region in northwestern Georgia. The film displays much of the visual expressiveness that characterized his post-war work, earning praise from film historian Jay Leyda and director Andrei Tarkovsky who called it an “amazing film”. His second film, Nail in the Boot, was a surreal narrative of strife between soldiers and workers at a shoe factory. The film’s formalism as well as its skeptical stance towards collective action led it to being shelved by Stalinist censors, thereby halting Kalatazov’s directorial career for nine years.
In the mid-30s, he moved to Leningrad (St. Petersburg) to complete his doctoral thesis at the Art Studies Academy. In the meantime, he worked at the local Lenfilm studios as an administrator before directing two films at the end of the decade – Courage and Valeriy Chkalov. The latter commissions were ordered by Stalin as part of his propaganda initiative to champion pilots as Soviet heroes. Kalatozov’s main function at the outbreak of the Second World War was chief administrator of Soviet Film Production. It was in this capacity that he visited Hollywood in 1943, as “the Soviet Union’s official ambassador to the movie industry.” During the year and a half that Kalatozov spent in Los Angeles, he screened American films for possible distribution to the Soviet Union. His post-war work, such as The Cranes Are Flying, displays traces of influence from the American films of the 40s to which he received significant exposure. He would return to active film-making during the 50s. The films from this decade were initially state-commissioned propaganda films. More significant work would follow after the death of Joseph Stalin.
The period of de-Stalinization initiated by Nikita Khruschev, resulted in a cultural “thaw” that allowed for freedom of expression in Soviet media. Approaching his 50s, Kalatozov’s films became youthful and exuberant; a result of his encounter with the cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky during the production of The First Echelon. Their collaborations would usher a bold, new age in Soviet cinema. The Cranes Are Flying is regarded by critic Josephine Woll as “the first indisputable masterpiece of post-Stalin cinema.” The film was a major popular and international success, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The film undercut the mandatory patriotism of state propaganda by focusing on the inner life of its characters, especially Tatyana Samojlova’s performance as Veronika. Its experimental and adventurous camerawork, a staple of all Kalatazov-Urusevsky films, made it influential on a new generation of film-makers from around the world. The Letter Never Sent, their succeeding film, was a moody adventure film about explorers in Siberia. The film suffered from compromises but its visual atmosphere cast a spell on Francis Ford Coppola who cited it as an influence on Apocalypse Now.
I Am Cuba was the culmination of Kalatazov’s collaboration with Urusevsky and one of the boldest adventures in film history. Its multi-episode narrative chronicled the rise of Cuba from colonialist subjects to revolutionary heroes. However the film’s narrative schema was often overwhelmed by its gargantuan scale. The action was blocked out in lengthy takes which required complicated camera set-ups. Although it was commissioned as propaganda, the film’s outsize technique rendered it ineffective since audiences were inevitably directed to the form of the film rather than its content. As a result, the film was shelved for its planned 1964 release. Kalatozov, who died in 1973, did not witness the film’s afterlife. In the 1990s, sparked by a revival of the film at American film festivals, the film was restored by Milestone Films with the patronage of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. It’s re-release was a great success and as a result, a film no one had seen during Kalatazov’s lifetime is now his most famous and influential work.