August 27th, 2006
“We have won, and we shall live not to destroy, but to build a new life!”
Synopsis: Veronica and Boris are blissfully in love, until the eruption of World War II tears them apart. Boris is sent to the front lines…and then communication stops. Meanwhile, Veronica tries to ward off spiritual numbness while Boris’ draft-dodging cousin makes increasingly forceful overtures. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, “The Cranes Are Flying” is a superbly crafted drama, bolstered by stunning cinematography and impassioned performances.
Critique: When you know that a film is “historically significant,” it’s easy to treat it like an antique teddy bear: something to be appreciated from a distance, but certainly not embraced. Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying was a landmark film in the history of post-Stalin Russian cinema, a Cannes Palme d’Or winner and a technically astonishing piece of filmmaking, but it isn’t something to watch just because it’s good for you. Consider the number of classic war movies in film history, then consider this: The Cranes Are Flying ranks among the best war movies ever made.
Like most great films, this one is at its heart a love story. In the spring of 1941, Boris (Alexei Batalov) and Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova) bask in the glow of their young love and their plans to marry. But war intervenes, and after the German invasion of Russia, Boris volunteers to go to the front. That leaves Veronica alone at home, waiting for letters from Boris that never come and fending off the advances of Boris’s draft-dodging cousin Mark (Alexander Shvorin).
The Cranes Are Flying appeared at a time when Soviet films were finally being allowed to explore the war without obvious jingoism, and you can feel the sense of liberation in virtually every frame. When the intelligent Boris enlists, the response from his family is not encouragement, but disbelief that he didn’t attempt to gain one of the draft exemptions available to the most talented. A rote speech of patriotic support for Boris from two young girls gets cut off as mere babble by Boris’ surgeon father (Vasily Merkuryev), and a government worker’s announcement about the joy of victory is juxtaposed with one grieving face. Though Kalatozov acknowledges the heroism of Russian soldiers, he refuses to ignore personal tragedy as legitimate, even in the face of global conflict.
He does so largely through a beautiful performance by Samoilova as the sexy, intense Veronica. In the early scenes with Boris, her playful tug of war with a blanket intended to block out a window establishes the affection between them with remarkable economy. Her face grounds the story as she reacts to a diatribe against faithless women, and as she falls into despair over whether Boris will ever return. Though Kalatozov goes to the battleground for one key segment of the film, his interest lies mostly with those left behind and damaged by war indirectly. The emotional force of Samoilova’s acting makes that pain as real as a gunshot.
It would be easy to spend hours dissecting Kalatozov’s powerful individual sequences as textbook examples of visual filmmaking: a collage of farewells to soldiers at a train station; Veronica’s frantic run to her parents’ apartment after an air raid; Boris’ heart-breaking hallucinatory vision of his wedding day with Veronica; Veronica staring off-screen while reading a letter from Boris, his voice-over sending the words directly into her soul. But the virtuoso moments come together for something riveting and completely human. It’s the kind of humanity you can’t just nod to respectfully as it sits in a museum case. You are compelled to throw your arms around it.
- By Scott Renshaw, Apollo Guide
My Thoughts: I couldn’t get over the gorgeous cinematography of “Cranes Are Flying.” Scene after scene comes alive with panoramic cranes, closeups, deep focus shots, wide angle perspectives, hand held camera, super imposed images… all masterfully executed. Tatiana Samoilova’s personality shines through in every scene and her performance carries us with her throughout the entire film. I wish they still made movies like this!