For more than forty years Mikhail Kalatozov (Mikheil Kalatozishvili) had a film career marked by the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. From his work in the early 1930s that earned him a place in the doghouse of Soviet officialdom to the glorious achievement of winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1958.
In the late 1920s the film studio in his native Georgia underwent a major shakeup as the stodgy old-timers were ousted and fresher minds were brought in from Moscow. The preeminent cinema pedagogue and filmmaker Lev Kuleshov came in to develop projects. The poet, journalist, and dramatist Sergei Tretyakov was developing scripts, with literary theorist and screenwriter Viktor Shklovsky entering the mix. The three had a strong affinity in their formalist approach to cinema and literature, one which strongly appealed to Kalatozov.
Working with Kuleshov, Kalatozov learned in greater depth the craft of cinema as a cameraman and screenwriter at Tbilisi. Together they made a few short newsreels and Kuleshov was mightily impressed with the twenty-six-year-old. “Kalatozov showed his brilliant technique as a cameraman,” writes Kuleshov in his memoirs, “even in … seemingly unappealing and unphotogenic films.” After studying under pioneering editor and filmmaker Esfir Shub, Kalatozov’s first credit was the compilation documentary Their Empire (1928), codirected with Nutsa Ghoghoberidze.
At the same time Tretyakov was developing ideas about his fascination with the Svan people of northwestern Georgia, an isolated tribal society completely out of step with the efforts of the Soviet Union to bring its many ethnic groups into modern civilization. Tretyakov’s interest led him to write articles, essays, and a 1929 script for The Blind Woman, a drama about an orphan living in a wealthy Svaneti home. Kalatozov directed the film, but it was condemned for “formalism” and never released.
In 1930 Kalatozov got his first important directing opportunity with Salt for Svanetia (Jim Shuante) and also served as the director of photography. The script was by Tretakyov again. It was intended to be a work of fiction and incorporated some footage from The Blind Woman. However, responding to Party expectations, the result, as edited by Shklovsky, was an ethnographic documentary. The expectations included that the film should promote Stalin’s first Five Year Plan (1928–32) of development.
This ethnographic documentary was unlike any ever seen before. This early in his career Kalatozov was much too ambitious artistically to conjure anything routine. Instead he painted a tragic picture of an exotic, long-suffering people, often given to extravagant, self-destructive behavior under the influence of long-held religious practices. In order to tell a story that reached greater depths of emotion, Kalatozov used techniques borrowed from Soviet filmmakers like Eisenstein, with stunning compositions, Dutch angles, as well as the use of nonprofessional Svan actors to represent the physical types that would conjure the primitive texture he sought.
At an altitude of six thousand feet, the land of Svanetia, along the Enguri River, was cut off from the world by mountains and glaciers, an ice palace with eight months of snowfall a year. During filming, there was a snowstorm on a hot day in July that nearly destroyed the local crops. But the defiant Svans prized the independence that came from isolation. They had built durable stone lookout towers and fortresses in the 10th century as a defense system against the land barons who looted the valley and imposed onerous taxes on the Svan throughout the tsarist era.
Kalatozov shows the Svan grazing livestock in their pastures and growing barley in their fields. Mainly subsistence farmers, some go to the valley on foot to work. Having no roads, they also did not use wheels. They are shown threshing the grain they grow and gathering wool from their flock of sheep to make yarn, all using the most primitive methods. They make their own clothing.
But one thing above all characterizes their impoverishment: They have no local source for salt, which most of us take for granted. In raising livestock this is a colossal problem, for the sheep, goats, and cows can produce very little milk without it. The precious commodity (compared to gold in the intertitles) must be imported in small amounts carried on their backs by migrant workers returning from work in the valley, but there is never enough.
The response to a death in the community reveals the backward traditions attributed to the Svan, including animal sacrifice. A pregnant woman is about to give birth, which is taboo during a funeral and for which she is ostracized, with tragic consequences. With no roads to seek medical care, “pregnancy is a curse,” reads an intertitle. One tragedy piles upon another.
As part of the Five Year Plan, the government is building a road that will be the first step in ending their beleaguered isolation. As the movie tells us, a crew of strong young men with pickaxes, dynamite, and tractors, have been working three years to build the first fifty kilometers.
Kalatozov was criticized again for an excessive attention to form and for overplaying the backwardness of the Svan, and even of having invented some aspects of their life for dramatic impact. And, no doubt, for limiting the heroic role of the Soviet government to a few minutes at the end of the film. He got another chance to make a film, 1932’s Nail in the Boot, which was criticized even more severely. He withdrew from directing and did not get another filmmaking opportunity until 1939. In subsequent years, nonetheless, Salt for Svanetia has grown in stature, earning high praise from Andrei Tarkovsky. Film scholar Jay Leyda called it “the most powerful documentary film I have ever seen.”
The times no longer favored daring cinematic experimentation. In the late 1920s the Stalinist bureaucracy had consolidated its stranglehold on the country. Their misguided, often cruel, policies led to the disaster of forced collectivization at home and historic defeats in Britain and China abroad.
In the early years after the Russian Revolution, ferment thrived among artists, especially in cinema, with Futurists, Formalists, Constructivists, Socialist Realists, and numerous others proclaiming themselves to be the genuine proletarian art. The Bolsheviks resisted the pressure to give any school of thought an official endorsement, allowing experimentation to flourish. But in the early 1930s the government found it convenient to decree socialist realism the only acceptable style of art, the more easily to control the realm of ideas.
Soviet filmmakers adapted as best they could in order to keep working, with Kalatozov relegated to production positions at various studios. It wasn’t until after the death of Stalin in 1953 that a new period of openness and relaxation of art policies was ushered in and Kalatozov had another chance to fully realize his vision. He found a new collaborator in the brilliantly innovative cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky. Their 1964 collaboration I Am Cuba, rediscovered in the 1990s, is now seen as an unparalleled achievement in visual storytelling, using exponentially more extravagant “emotional camera” techniques that can be traced back to Salt for Svanetia.
But Kalatozov’s greatest moment and cinematic redemption came with the Cannes Film Festival bestowing its most prestigious award on his deeply moving condemnation of war, The Cranes Are Flying, released October 12, 1957, even as Sputnik circled the Earth overhead.
The short film TEN MINUTES IN THE MORNING (Dilis ati Tsuti) played before the feature
Director of this Kulturfilm Georgian filmmaker Aleqsandre Jaliashvili was also an actor who had appeared in Kalatozov’s The Blind Girl and Nail in the Boot, both of which had been suppressed for not conforming to the Party’s often obtuse directives on cinema. The release of Kulturfilms was part of the government’s aim to mold good Bolsheviks, as the young sprawling nation tried to modernize its economy and educate its citizens across diverse languages, geographies, and cultures. While the degree of control the Soviets sought over its peoples and the methods they used to attain it were often sinister, this strident encouragement to take a few minutes each day to get fit in order to better face the challenges ahead seems as good an idea to us now as it did to the Party back then. —Editor
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble