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Kalatozov’s First Masterpiece

April 14, 2010

Mikhail Kalatozov, the renowned director of the classic Soviet films The Cranes Are Flying (1957), The Unsent Letter (1959), and I Am Cuba (1964), had his cinematic roots in the vibrant creative ferment of the Soviet 1920s. At decade’s end, after learning his craft from the great documentary filmmakers Esfir Shub and Dziga Vertov, Kalatozov brought his camera to a Georgian mountain community where the routines of both subsistence and spirit had changed little since medieval times (Leyda, 1983). There he created one of the masterpieces of early Soviet cinema, Salt for Svanetia (1930).

Like many great Soviet films of the 1920s, Salt for Svanetia bears thematic richness within an agitprop libretto. On one hand, the film, exuberantly modern in its rhythmic editing and oblique camera angles, calls for socialist modernization (in this case, for road construction) as the guarantor of a more humane way of life. On the other, it is a hymn to communal timelessness. This paradox reflects the peculiar temporal ambivalence at the heart of both early Soviet cinema and early Soviet populist-enthusiast dreams of modernization. By 1930, as the midpoint of the First Five Year Plan approached, the half-romantic notion that modernization could be achieved without trampling the communities the state sought to modernize was on its way out. But in cinema the old dream was exiting with an extraordinary flourish, highlighted by Kalatozov’s film, and still more famously by Dovzhenko’s Earth. In Salt for Svanetia, the pre-industrial struggle for daily life is so lovingly depicted—even in its tragic moments—that it becomes impossible to read the film as an uncomplicated call for ends-justify-the-means industrial progress. (Thirty-four year later, Kalatozov would revive the 1920s populist-enthusiast synthesis in  I Am Cuba.)

Salt for Svanetia, like Earth, refuses to look forward without simultaneously looking back. The intellectual inheritance of the Soviet revolutionary spirit mixes the utopian, past-denying forward thrust of Marxist modernization with the back-to-the-people dreams of the 1870s Russian narodniki, populists who both idealized the peasant commune and sought to transform it through literacy and political consciousness. If, under conditions of capitalism, holiness had melted into air and the sacred had been profaned, the dream of the Socialist modernizer was not to mock the sundered spiritual instinct, but to renew and repurpose it.

Greg Blake Miller

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