Russians, Germans, and A Certain Amount of Doom

I Am Cuba (1964)

51dkKQ4LeYL._SY445_There are two things – Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey and Xan Cassavetes’ Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, that should both ditch their existing subtitles and substitute Why Haven’t You Watched These Movies Yet, You Asshole. I’m not kidding about this; I honestly think my late-in-life drive to catch up with essential cinema was jumpstarted by Cassavetes, and Cousins just widened my horizons exponentially.

Cousins is the one who convinced me to seek out Russian Ark, both a good and a bad thing – but I think the only scene quoted in his series that dropped my jaw as hard as Ark‘s final scene was a sequence from a movie I had never even heard of – I Am Cuba.

Any section of that scene would be pointed to with pride by any filmmaker, but as you can see, it just. Keeps. Going. It’s a sequence designed to astonish the viewer and make them wonder just how the hell that was accomplished. It is toward the end of the movie, certainly (and in fact should probably be the end), but I am here to tell you that I Am Cuba is full of such wonders.

tumblr_n62lwpBWdy1qcoaf4o1_500After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the subsequent break-off of relations with the US, aid began pouring into the country from Soviet Russia, and one of those pieces of aid took the form of Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov, cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky, and poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, to make a movie about the Revolution with the nascent Cuban film ministry. Developed and shot over an astonishing 14 months – during the Cuban Missile Crisis, even – the result was I Am Cuba. Kalatazov was given a tremendous amount of leeway and support from both governments. At one point he requested 1000 soldiers for a scene, and he got them (even though radio announcements and speakers from trucks had to be employed to reassure the citizens that the sudden mobilization was not another revolution).

Untitled1One scene involves student revolutionaries throwing molotov cocktails at a drive-in movie screen showing footage of Batista giving a speech; not only is the image of the dictator giving his speech wreathed in flames particularly potent, but the following footage, with the students escaping in the chaos, is done in a long shot and we still see the burning screen in the background – that is a real structure in real flames with a ton of people. Urushevsky requisitioned infrared movie stock from the military, resulting in eerily beautiful footage of white and silver palm trees and sugar cane against a black sky.

The movie takes an anthology approach to the build-up to the Revolution; a girl eking out a living as a prostitute to the venal Western tourists has her life shattered when one of her customers insists on coming home with her, because he thinks finding out how “these women” live would be interesting; a sugar cane sharecropper has his life similarly destroyed when his landlord sells his farm out from under him – the farmer gives his son and daughter his last peso to go to town, then torches his fields and house and literally lies down and dies; a student revolutionary plots to kill a corrupt Police Chief but can’t pull the trigger when he sees the man eating breakfast with his loving children – the same Chief will kill both his friends and the revolutionary himself, resulting in the above funeral scene; and finally, a simple farmer who just wants to be left alone is radicalized when the government indiscriminately bombs his farm in search of rebels, destroying his home and killing his son.

iamcuba-splsh2I Am Cuba begins with a continuous shot every bit as startling as that funeral scene, and continues to dazzle with its camerawork. I had thought there was no way it could possibly keep that up, and to my surprise and delight, it did. I even find that these bravura shots (easily found on YouTube) are not my favorite. That falls to the opening of the second story, as the farmer, while his children sleep, prays for rain to save his crop. Rain it does, and as water flows down the camera lens, the image blurs, and successive waves down the camera reveal the farmer’s life, the birth of his children, the death of his wife – his life on that little farm. It is a remarkable sequence, purely visual, and as close to poetry as anything I have ever seen onscreen.

Well, we all know how this goes, as we have seen it repeatedly in the life of great films: the premiere of I Am Cuba in 1964 was a disaster; the Soviets declared that Kalatozov had made an art film, not the propaganda that was intended, and Cubans found it far too Slavic in its portrayal of its people, going so far as to call it I Am Not Cuba. And thus it was quietly stored away, a copy in the USSR, a copy in Cuba, forgotten, ignored out of existence.

Until the USSR dissolved in the early 90s, anyway. Blurry VHS copies began to circulate, and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola discovered it and sang its praises. I Am Cuba was rescued from the dustbin of history, and we are all the richer for it.

There is a documentary in Milestone Film’s Ultimate Edition, The Siberian Mammoth, which fails on the front I wanted – there is no revelation how Urushevsky accomplished those remarkable shots, where tales persist of special vests that served as Steadicam prototypes, with eyes and carabiniers that allowed the camera operator to be hooked into systems of pulleys and wires. There is instead a lot of reminiscing, and the most significant thing, for me, is that all the Cubans who participated in the production had, over the years, allowed themselves to believe what they were told: that the movie is a massive failure, something to be ashamed of. The change that comes over them when they are given newly-minted tapes of the movie, and read the praise that is now lavished on it, is telling, and very, very satisfying.

37020_2Honestly, highest possible recommendation.

Buy I Am Cuba on Amazon.

Letter Never Sent (1960)

letterneverNow, on the shelf of Criterion blu-rays I have amassed over the last couple of years in my travels through used movie and book stores, I discovered I had another, earlier collaboration between Kalatazov and Urushevsky, Letter Never Sent. It’s the second of their three movies together, the first being The Cranes Are Flying (as usual, I seem to be accessing filmographies in reverse).

Letter Never Sent is much simpler in concept than I Am Cuba, if not in execution. The very first shot lets us know that these are the same filmmakers, as four geologists (Vasiliy Livanov, Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy, Evgeniy Urbanskiy and Cranes’ Tatyana Samoylova) are dropped by a river in Siberia, the camera holding on them as their helicopter flies away, and they become part of the environment.

It has been theorized that the geology of Siberia is similar to the parts of Africa where the richest deposits of diamonds have been found. Ergo, the geologist’s mission is to find those diamonds. The leader is on his seventh such mission; the guide, his tenth. There are two lovers fresh from university. They dig and analyze, moving deeper into the interior, through the summer and into the fall – and they finally find diamonds.

fireThe sequence showing their efforts is going to be familiar if you’ve seen I Am Cuba: swirling and magical, artistic and amazing, it truly feels like months of exhausting labor packed into a few minutes. The four finish off a bottle of cognac they had reserved for celebration; then, in the morning, they are completely screwed.

Well, you expected this in a movie titled Letter Never Sent. They awaken to find themselves in a massive forest fire, losing the guide almost immediately, giving up his life to rescue supplies so the others have a chance. Then, having lost their guide, the other three try to find their way back to “The River”. Their radio is broken, and they can receive but not transmit; the heavy smoke prevents them from being seen from above. The geologist injured during the fire slowly weakens, eventually wandering off in the night so his comrades don’t have to carry him anymore. Then winter comes with its snow and ice, and The River is still nowhere in sight.

Russians really, really love their doomed characters, don’t they?

current_800_086_largeKalatozov’s long, choreographed takes are an obvious influence on Andrei Tarkovsky; Urushevsky’s camera is much more restless, but it’s quite possible to see the influence from this through Andrei Rublev. and with Kalatozov’s insistence on using real environments whenever possible. God only knows where he shot the forest fire scenes, or how dangerous it was, because that shit is real. You can tell when the filming switched to Mosfilm’s studios because the camera stands still.

Letter Never Sent was a large hit in Russia and in fact led to a boom in the number of students studying geology. It’s a great examination of the human will to survive – as the last survivor continues to write his wife with frozen fingers, he says, “My life is no longer my own.” He has to survive, to get that map to civilization, or his friends will have died in vain. This movie is doubtless the reason Kalatozov got the nod to direct I Am Cuba, and the only other movie he got to direct after its disastrous premiere: the Soviet/Italian co-production The Red Tent (1969), about the failed 1928 Arctic expedition of the airship Italia. I’ve not seen it, but I remember asking friends who had what they thought of it, and they just got a strange, faraway look in their eyes and moaned, “They all died…”

You know. Doomed.

Buy Letter Never Sent on Amazon

 Die Nibelungen (1925)

nibelungenliedHey, speaking of doomed…

I am finding that I have a deep abiding affection for Weimar Republic cinema. Much magic produced in such a troubled time. Kino-Lorber has been doing a great job of putting out, on blu-ray, the wonderful restoration work of the F.W. Murnau Foundation, not only the work of its namesake (which I have come to love) but of the prolific Fritz Lang, who supplanted Murnau as a guiding force of world cinema, for better or worse. Lang made 16 movies from 1919 to 1933, while Murnau made 17.  But Lang undeniably had his finger on the pulse of his audience –  he knew where what they wanted intersected with what he wanted to make, and he was able to deliver that with unmistakable artistry.

After the success of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Lang undertook the massive project of making a film version of the Nibelungenlied or The Song of the Nibelungen, an epic poem dating back to the 12th or 13th century. That’s going to be familiar to opera fans, because Richard Wagner used it as an inspiration for the Ring Cycle of operas, adding about a thousand times more gods and magic. Lang broke the poem down into two lengthy movies, Sigfried (2 hours 30 minutes) and Kriemhild’s Revenge (2 hours 12 minutes). If you come to these movies expecting the opera or even What’s Opera, Doc?, you are going to be severely confused and disappointed.

What does that matter, though? It’s an epic poem, and those inevitably end in tragedy. In short, everybody you’re about to meet is doomed.

A rough knowledge of the operas or, at least, Germanic legend is going to keep you in good stead, however, because the first movie depends on such familiarity to get things moving.  Siegfried (Paul Richter) finishes his apprenticeship to the swordmaker Mime (Georg John) and hearing of the court of Burgundy, decides to journey there and woo the beautiful Kriemhild (Margarete Schön), sight unseen. On the way, he encounters a dragon. Now the dragon is just minding his own business, getting a drink of water, and then this blonde asshole with a sword comes along and kills him. As there is no justice, a drop of the dragon’s blood falls on Siegfried, allowing him to understand the language of birds. A nearby bird tells him to bathe in the blood of the dragon, so he’ll be invulnerable. However, a leaf from “the mischievous Linden tree” falls on him, so he has the required vulnerable spot.

Yep, this photo.

Yep, this photo.

We’ve all seen at least one picture of that dragon; whenever Siegfried is ever mentioned in print, there is almost inevitably a picture of Siegfried bathing in its blood. It’s pretty amazing to see the thing actually moving – it’s a life-sized puppet that required six men to operate and even more to move its body back and forth.

After that despicable act, Siegfried gets a magic helmet (it looks like a piece of net to me, but whatever) from the murderous Albrecht (still Georg John), who still tries to kill Siegfried again, gets murdered back, and curses his treasure just to make sure we know Siegfried is doomed. Siegfried then conquers twelve kingdoms on his way to Burgundy, so he has quite the entourage when he finally presents himself at court. Kriemhild’s brother, King Gunther (Theodor Loos) is reluctant to let his sister see this sudden Adonis, until his right hand man Hagen Tronje (Hans Edelbart Schettlow) points out that Siegfried can help Gunther conquer the women he loves – the barbarian queen Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), who has a tendency to kill suitors who can’t beat her in three competitions.

You know instinctively that Hagen is going to be trouble, He has a beard, after all. And he never takes off his chainmail suit. Though he does sometimes take off his outrageous winged helmet.

siegfrieddeathOne look at Kriemhild, and Siegfried agrees. Using the magic helmet’s power of invisibility, he helps Gunther beat the three trials of Brunhild, and later has to use the same helmet’s power of illusion to beat the uncowed Brunhild in the bedchamber while pretending to be Gunther. Things like this never turn out well, as Brunhild will eventually find out, and insist that Siegfried be killed, even lying to Gunther that Siegfried raped her that fateful night. Hagen, who has been spoiling for just such a chance, volunteers to do the deed and tricks Kriemhild into revealing Siegfried’s vulnerable spot, killing him with a javelin in the back during a hunting trip.

Kriemhild, distraught, demands justice but Gunther and the rest of the royal family closes ranks around Hagen, denying her this. Brunhild, wracked by guilt, kills herself at Siegfried’s bier, and thus are we set up for movie two, Kriemhild’s Revenge.

kriemhildsrevengeOf course, Kriemhild hasn’t gotten any revenge since the first movie, and Hagen twists the knife by stealing Siegfried’s cursed treasure and dumping it in the Rhine so she can’t use it to raise an army against him. Who should crop up but Rudiger (Rudolf Rittner) an emissary from the court of Attila (the ever-reliable Rudolf Klein-Rogge) “The Lord of the Earth”, who wishes to marry Kriemhild (what is with these kings falling in love with women they have never seen?). Kriemhild agrees, and begins her revenge plot in earnest, giving Attila a son and supplanting the Huns loyalty from him to herself. She convinces Attila to invite Gunther and his court to the Huns’ Great Hall to celebrate the child’s birth, only to discover Attila’s Code of the Desert will not allow him to attack a guest. Her loyal Huns attack, and in this first attack, the ever-predictable Hagen kills the child in reprisal, removing Attila’s protection from the Burgundians, who will hole up in the Great Hall, repelling attack after attack, until Kriemhild orders the Hall torched.

attilaSpoiler alert: damn near everybody dies. In fact, each movie is composed of Seven Cantos, each with its own title card, and each Canto should really be called a Spoiler Alert, especially in the first movies, which has titles like “How Siegfried Slayed the Dragon” “How Siegfried Beat Brunhild” and “How Siegfried Got Killed By A Putz in Chainmail Stabbing Him In The Back While He Got A Drink of Water”. It always seems to me when studying these old epics/tragedies that we’re not so much dealing with the Age of Legends or the Age of Heroes as The Age of Jerks. What’s impressive about Die Nibelungenlied is that the women get to be just as big jerks as the menfolk.

There is no denying that Die Nibelungen is a technical triumph. Siegfried was a worldwide hit, and Kriemhild less so, perhaps because the second film is much more Greek tragedy than the first. Schön is icily magnificent in her role, magnetic and powerful – one can actually believe that she can inspire and control the Hordes, exhorting them to suicidal attack after attack, only to be repeatedly beaten, of course, by the exceedingly white Burgundians.

The restoration must have been a very hard row to hoe; the movies had been shortened many times through the years, most notoriously for use as Nazi propaganda; endless use was made of the blonde Richter, riding his white horse through massive forests that were man-made and fated to be torn down so a Hun village could be built. Like the restored Metropolis, this version is as complete as possible, with scenes dropped in from lesser sources made obvious by the clarity of the negatives the Foundation was able to unearth. Die Nibelungen is definitely a long haul, and your enjoyment is going to be directly linked to how much you enjoy ancient poems, silent cinema, and jerks with swords.

Buy Die Nibelungen on Amazon


  1. Excellent post. Both those docs you mentioned at the start should be REQUIRED viewing for anyone who wants to see film in a new light while getting some kick-ass recommendations. I know I Am Cuba blew my mind to the point where I watched it for three days studying scenes and shots just to be amazed at how they were done.

    • Scorsese said he wasn’t looking forward to making Casino until he was shown I Am Cuba and it re-energized him. It is just such a document of how much is possible in cinema and how to go about doing it! And to think we almost didn’t get to see it AT ALL.

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