Early & Silent Film

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Mikhail Kalatazov.

Posted by keith1942 on May 31, 2011

An important though not that well known Soviet director.  His two best-known works are The Letyat Zhuravii / The Cranes are Flying (1957), which shared the Best Picture Award at Cannes 1958: and Soy Cuba / I am Cuba (1963), which presents a triptych of stories of Cuba before and during the revolutionary civil war. There have been two opportunities in recent years to see more of his film work. In 2004 the Göteborg Film Festival presented a selection of his films. This welcome opportunity was slightly arduous for linguistically limited English fans, as the films were screened in Russian with Swedish subtitles.

Then in 2010 Il Giornate del Cinema Muto presented all the surviving silent film work of Kalatozov, including those on which he worked as cinematographer. He emerges from this fuller picture as an extremely gifted stylist, whose approach to film is rather poetic. In fact, it struck me that whilst there are major differences there is a similar quality to the films of Sergei Paradjanov. Both were Georgian artists: both had problems with the Soviet authorities: and in both sets of films emotional imagery takes precedence over narrative and commentary.

Kalatazov was born Mikhail Konstantinovich Kalatozishvili in Tiflis (Tibilisi) in 1903. He entered the Georgian sector of the young Soviet film industry in 1925 at the Goskinprom Studios. He worked as an actor, cutter and cameraman before graduating to direction. He was a member of the Georgian avant-garde of the period and worked at different times with innovators like Lev Kuleshov, Esther Shub and Sergei Tretyakov.

His command and manipulation of the film camera is what one first notices in his work, including on the films on which he worked as cinematographer. Two of these were screened at Pordenone: Giuli (1927, director Lev Push): and Boshuri Siskhli / Gypsy Blood, 1928, (director Lev Push).

In the films that he directed, especially during the silent period, the camera work is almost delirious and the images throb with emotion. His two major works from this early period are Jim Shuante / Salt for Svanetia (1930), formally a documentary about a remote area of the Caucasus. However, the film focuses on traditional rituals and mythic representations of customs that had probably already died out. Only in the final reel does it address the impact of Soviet socialist plans. And the other film is Lursmani Cheqmashi / Nail in the Boot (1931) which is an overt propaganda film. However, once again Kalatazov is really interested in the poetic image and tale. The first part of the film depicts a battle shot in noir style and the desperate and unsuccessful journey for help by a soldier. In the second part a military court martial provides the setting for overt political comment. In both cases Kalatazov expended more energy on the poetic qualities of the film than on the political aspects. This resulted in criticism by the cultural authorities, and also by the military authorities on the second film. This was the period when ‘socialist realism’ was the required form for films, and Kalatazov’s work was as far from such a style of filmmaking as one could possibly get.

Salt for Svanetia

Nail in the Boot was banned and Kalatazov was transferred to administrative duties. He did not direct films again until the 1939. I have not yet been able to see the nine films he directed up until 1956. The Cranes are Flying in that year shows has retained both his command of the medium and his poetic feelings. The film tells the story of two lovers separated by the great Nazi-Soviet conflict. The film’s cinematography is powerful and very unusual for the period in Soviet cinema. I rather felt that there is some influence here on Tarkovsky.

The Unmailed Letter (1960) is one of the films I tried to follow in Russian and Swedish. It follows an expedition to Siberia, which ends disastrously. The film has all the fevered camerawork that Kalatazov delivered in his silent films. I am Cuba has grown in reputation in recent years, and is an important record of a particular moment in the Cuban revolution. It still expended as much attention on the poetic aspects of the struggle and the Cubans were less impressed with the film. His final film, The Red Tent / La Tenda Rossa (1971) was a Soviet/Italian co-production about an ill-fated polar expedition. Unfortunately it is slow, wooden and not really a memorable last movie.

Stills courtesy of Gosfilmomond and Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

The Cranes are Flying and Soy Cuba are both available on DVD.



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