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Salt for Svanetia

The Ushkuls are a tribe living in Svanetia, a region in northwest Georgia. Effectively cut off from the rest of the world for much of the year by the snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus, the Ushkuls are famous for their striking stone towers, built to protect themselves against enemy tribes and the rapacious barons who live in the valleys below. From birth to death their lives are a struggle for mere existence, lacking in basic technology and held back by centuries-old superstitions. Through a deft combination of documentary footage and acted scenes, the film presents a powerful argument for modernization.

Salt for Svanetia (1930) is an important example of the Soviet genre of kulturfilm, or educational film, designed to raise public consciousness. It also has elements of the agit-film, which is designed to "agitate" or rouse the public to support a certain goal - in this case, the building of a road to link Svanetia with the rest of the world. What is remarkable about Soviet films of this period is the revolutionary fervor and artistic ingenuity with which filmmakers applied themselves to the task of educating the public. Many educational and propagandistic films of this period still hold their own as accomplished pieces of filmmaking. Another popular example is Victor Turin's documentary about the construction of the Turkestan-Siberian railroad, Turksib (1929), with which Kalatozov's film is often paired. While it is undoubtedly true, as historian Denise Youngblood points out in her book Soviet Cinema of the Silent Era: 1918-1935 (1991), that the purportedly ethnographic subject matter of Salt for Svanetia is more than a little "sensational and exotic," its kinetic style impressed the few Western critics at the time who had seen it, in particular Harry Alan Potamkin and Jay Leyda.

According to Georgian film historian Natia Amirejibi, scenarist Sergei Tretyakov and director Mikheil Kalatozov had originally traveled to Svanetia to make a film entitled The Blind Woman (1930). After the film was completed, it was accused of being "formalist" and was banned; today the film is lost. Remarkably, Kalatozov managed to edit a new film entirely, Salt for Svanetia, out of discarded footage from The Blind Woman and additional footage that he had shot on the side during his stay in Svanetia.

Although film production in the Republic of Georgia dates back as early as 1908, it was not until the incorporation of Georgia into the Soviet Union and the subsequent establishment of the state-run production company Goskinprom of Georgia that the film industry took off in earnest, thanks to the expanded market for its films. Georgian silent melodramas such as Nikolai Shengelaia's Eliso (1928) became popular throughout the Soviet Union, due in part to the republic's wealth of picturesque locales and distinctive mix of regional cultures. At the same time, Georgian avant-garde films such as Shengelaia's Twenty Six Commissars (1933) and Konstantin Mikaberidze's dazzling My Grandmother (1929) compare favorably with the work of Russian and Ukrainian filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, if mainly from a stylistic standpoint. The Georgian film industry experienced a second boom in the mid 1950s with the emergence of a new generation of directors, among them Tengiz Abuladze, best known for the breakthrough Glasnost film Repentance (1987). Others include Rezo Chkheidze, Lana Gogoberidze and the sons of Nikolai Shengelaia, Eldar and Giorgi Shengelaia. However, the impact of Georgians on Soviet cinema was not limited to the republic itself; ethnic Georgians such as Mikhail Chiaureli, Mikhail Tumanishvili and Giorgi Danelia played an important role in Russian cinema through their work at studios such as Mosfilm. At the same time, the sizable Armenian community of Tbilisi, the republic's capital, produced other prominent film directors besides Kalatozov like Sergei Parajanov and Rouben Mamoulian. But Kalatozov's career is emblematic in that he directed a key Georgian silent film - Salt for Svanetia - and subsequently one of the greatest of all postwar Russian films, The Cranes Are Flying (1957).

Born in Tbilisi in 1903, Mikheil Kalatozishvili (he later "Russified" his name to Kalatozov) worked as a car mechanic and chauffeur then studied economics before finding his true calling in the film industry. He played several bit parts and worked as a cinematographer and screenwriter on several films, making his directing debut in 1928 with 18-28, a compilation film influenced by Esther Shub's The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). He managed to attract some critical attention (not all of it positive) for the stylistically innovative Salt For Svanetia. His next feature, the industrial propaganda film Nail in the Boot (1932), was about a shoe-factory worker who is injured due to a faulty nail in his boot, thus allowing a train to be captured during Red Army maneuvers. It was attacked by Army officials for its supposed negative depiction of the Army and was subsequently banned. Kalatozov became an administrator at the film studio in Tbilisi and didn't make additional films until he moved to Russia and directed two aviation films: Courage (1939) and the immensely popular Valeri Chkalov (1941). Other significant films by Kalatozov during this period include Conspiracy of the Doomed (1950), an anti-Western propaganda film characteristic of the late Stalin era, and True Friends (1954), a satirical musical comedy. The latter appeared at the very beginning of the thaw that would accelerate after Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's excesses during a speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956.

The Cranes are Flying, Kalatozov's masterpiece, is undoubtedly the most important film produced during the Thaw. The lyrical, at times dizzying camerawork of cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky marked a major stylistic break with the more conventional, often stolid filmmaking that dominated the Stalin era. The film's sympathetic treatment of its compromised heroine--played magnificently by Tatiana Samoilova--also paved the way for more morally complex depictions of the terrible hardships endured by the Soviet people during the Second World War. The film was awarded numerous prizes, including the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Urusevsky's camera was the real star of Kalatozov's next two features, The Letter Never Sent (1959) and I am Cuba (1964); the latter was revived in the U.S. recently to great success. Kalatozov's last film was the all-star international co-production The Red Tent (1971) with Peter Finch, Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale and actor-director Nikita Mikhalkov. Kalatozov passed away in 1973.

Sergei Tretyakov (1892-1939) was an important writer associated with the Russian avant-garde of the Twenties. A novelist, poet and playwright, he was notable for incorporating journalistic elements into his work. Today he is probably best known as the author of the play Roar China and early theatrical productions by Sergei Eisenstein such as Gas Masks (1924) and a radically reworked version of the Alexander Ostrovsky play Enough Simplicity for Every Wise Man (1923). A trip to Georgia resulted in Tretyakov writing the screenplays for Nikolai Shengelaia's Eliso, Salt for Svanetia and Mikhail Chiaureli's Out of the Way! (1931). Like many members of the Soviet avant-garde, he ran into trouble with authorities during the increasingly repressive environment of the 1930s. In 1937, during the height of the Stalinist purges, he was accused of espionage and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He died in prison in 1939 but his good name and reputation were restored posthumously in 1956.

Director/Screenplay: Mikheil Kalatozov
Production Design: Davit Kakabadze
Operator: Mikheil Kalatozov, Shalva Gegelashvili
Assistant Director: Siko Palavandishvili

by James Steffen

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