Humanising the Soviet Subject: Letiat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying)
When Letiat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying) was released in late 1957, it came as a revelation to audiences both within the Soviet Union and beyond. Domestically, the film liberated viewers with its honest and unheroic depiction of World War II – the first ever of its kind. Internationally, it surprised moviegoers with the seeming “unsovietness” of both its content and its form. The film’s protagonists were not heroes of labour or paragons of socialist civic virtue, but rather ordinary people caught up in the maelstrom of World War II. “Believe it or not,” film critic Bosley Crowther noted sardonically in the New York Times, “it is a picture about two young people romantically in love – in love with each other, that is, and not with a tractor or the Soviet state.”
Indeed, the emotional core of the film lies in the romantic relationship between Boris (Alexei Batalov) and Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova), a young engineer and a student living in Moscow. There is nothing exceptional about either of them – nothing, that is, except their shared sensitivity, spontaneity, and sincerity. It is these qualities that endear them to us in the first, joyful scenes of the film and allow us to experience the irruption of the war as a violation not only of the peaceful world order but also of their personal idyll. Overly decent and responsible, Boris enlists in the Soviet army immediately after the German invasion is announced, without waiting to be called up. Not surprisingly, he is among the first to die – but is reported to his family as missing in action. Veronica, in turn, suffers a series of traumas: the traffic and crowds in the streets prevent her from reaching Boris to say goodbye as he leaves for the front; her parents perish in a bomb raid; Boris’s letters stop coming; finally, during yet another bomb raid, she is raped by Boris’s cousin Mark (Alexander Shvorin), and out of guilt, exhaustion, or sheer inertia, agrees to marry him.
In essence, then, the narrative structure of the film is that of Veronica’s fall and redemption. In the first half of the film, she is perceived by those around her as having committed the worst offence women on the home front could commit – infidelity to a soldier. The second half then traces her re-awakening from her emotional stupor and her social and spiritual rehabilitation. Like many great works of art, Cranes does not shy away from quoting the classics. In this case, the references are all Tolstoyan: the narrative structure, as well as Veronica’s candour, recall the fall and redemption of Natasha Rostova in War and Peace, just as Veronica’s later attempt to commit suicide by jumping off a railway bridge is a direct allusion to Anna Karenina. (Coincidentally, Samoilova would go on to play Karenina in the 1967 adaptation by Aleksandr Zarkhi.)
Viewers unfamiliar with Soviet cinema might be surprised to encounter a film which focuses in such detail on the female experience of the war. Within the canon of war films which had formed by 1957, however, this was not uncommon. In her masterful study of Cranes, Josephine Woll points out that two-thirds of the films produced by Soviet studios during the war itself were “war films”, and that the most successful of these centred on female protagonists. She lists Friedrich Ermler’s Ona zashchishchaet rodinu (She Defends the Motherland, 1943), Mark Donskoi’s Raduga (The Rainbow, 1943), Lev Arnshtam’s Zoya (Zoya, 1944) and Sergei Gerasimov’s Bol’shaya Zemlya (The Great Land, 1944) as prime examples. The key difference, of course, is that the women in all these films were presented as positive, almost saint-like, models of wartime heroism. All but the last endure unimaginable horrors and give up their lives for their country. Grigori Chukhrai’s Sorok pervyi (The Forty-first, 1956) attempted to introduce some nuance into this idealised image, but it was ultimately Cranes that marked a radical departure from tradition in presenting a woman who was taken to be unfaithful, whose endurance had limits, and who was much more concerned with her own immediate, affective world than with the fate of the nation.
What is more, the film refused either to explain her behaviour or to judge it. The screenplay was adapted by Kalatozov from a play entitled Vechno zhivye (alternately translated as Eternally Alive or Alive Forever) by Victor Rozov, with the playwright’s assistance. In the process, the duo trimmed all excess verbiage, including overly sentimental statements and instances of inner monologue. Kalatozov’s intent, from the outset, was to make a film where the image would prime over the spoken word, and where characters’ internal states would be expressed using cinematic rather than literary means. Consequently, characters’ motivations are never spelled out; instead, the viewer must infer them from the acting and the expressive camerawork of master cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky. The moral implication of this approach is that Veronica owes no explanation – to us as viewers, or to Soviet society.
The sense that the film champions Veronica’s right to make mistakes and live her life as she sees fit is shaped as much by the script as by the cinematography. As Soviet critic Maia Turovskaia noted, “When you leave the theatre, you don’t know whether the image of Veronica owes her charm to […] Samoilova’s talent and sincerity or to Urusevsky’s art, able to catch in the turn of a head, a momentary pose, the blink of eyelashes, the helplessness and obstinacy, the tenderness and pride of this particular woman’s character.” In all of the film’s most emotionally charged scenes – when Veronica rushes to her parents’ apartment only to discover that it no longer exists, when she flees from Mark’s advances, and when she runs to the railway bridge intent on throwing herself off – the camera stays close to her body, its movements and the editing imitating her feverish pace. In so doing, the camera involves us as viewers: we are both physically with her, and on her side.
Veronica stands on the precipice of what used to be her parents’ apartment.
What truly set Cranes apart, then, was that its iconoclastic approach extended to form as well as content. As readers may have already gathered, the camera in Cranes is exceptionally mobile. Some of the film’s most remarkable scenes are those which begin with the camera in close-up on Veronica and then seamlessly pull up and out to reveal her moving across large, open spaces or weaving her way through a dense crowd. This is most notably the case in the two symmetrical scenes which show the soldiers departing for, and returning from, the front. The departure scene opens with a close-up on Veronica inside a bus that is slowing down. She pokes her head in and out of the bus window in an attempt to assess the situation, then decides to step off and continue on foot. Instead of cutting, the camera executes a 180-degree turn to follow her out of the bus and into the crowd. The camera then continues, presumably on a dolly, to follow her from some distance as she weaves her way through the throng. Finally, it moves up into a crane shot that reveals Veronica recklessly rushing across a procession of tanks in order to reach the other side of the street. Not a single cut interrupts the action.
Veronica runs across a procession of tanks in her attempt to reach Boris before he leaves for the front.
Asked in 2011 to name an image which has affected his work, famed American cinematographer Haskell Wexler chose precisely this scene from Cranes, and it is easy to see why. Despite the masterfully controlled camera movements, the scene has a distinctly documentary quality no doubt inherited from Kalatozov’s training: in the late 1920s, the director had cut his teeth in the genre, earning some early fame with the documentary Sol’ dlia Svanetii (Salt for Svanetia, 1930). This scene and many others in the film also belie the influence of Italian neorealism on Soviet directors in the post-war period, and one cannot help but see an echo here of Pina’s fateful run down the crowd-lined street in Roma cittá aperta (Rome, Open City, Roberto Rossellini, 1945).
Kalatozov and Urusevsky do not stop here, however. Their genius lies in the film’s daring yet judicious oscillation between an objective and subjective camera. The swirling shots and superimpositions used in Boris’ dying vision as well as the canted angles and high-contrast lighting of the rape scene are highly subjective and derive from German Expressionism. (Shot from a low angle approximating Veronica’s point of view here, Mark looks every inch Cesare, the Somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.) Yet in other scenes, as when Mark announces their intention to marry, the camera remains objective and still, simply registering the event. Except for a few high-octane moments that feature music by Moisey Vaynberg, the sound is primarily diegetic and does not get in the way of editing and cinematography.
Mark looms over Veronica
The end result was that critics praised the film lavishly for its variations in tempo and speed, from “almost static observations of a domestic scene to a sudden swift crescendo of movement.” Crowther saw in this blend of approaches “Pudovkin and Dovzhenko […] brought up to date to blend with sound and the overlapping idioms of modern screen reportage,” while John Beaufort of The Christian Science Monitor extolled its refreshing combination of “realism and lyricism”. For Woll, this approach had ideological consequences as well. Throughout her study she insists on the film’s “romantic sensibility,” which she defines as “its validation of the supremacy of feeling” as an “alternative to officially enshrined values.”
That such a morally and aesthetically complex film could even have been made in 1957 spoke to the fundamental nature of the changes that were under way in Soviet society in the wake of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress the previous year. One aspect of these changes had to do with the nation’s experience of World War II. During the war, representations of the conflict were needed for propaganda purposes. Between the end of the war in 1945 and Stalin’s death in 1953, however, a de facto ban was imposed on all non-official representation of the war. Only government-sanctioned and highly idealised images, films, and literature were allowed to circulate.
Khrushchev’s “secret speech” set in motion a general, if short-lived period of liberalisation that would become known as the “Thaw”. As part of that speech, Khrushchev also acknowledged that Stalin had committed grave mistakes during the war that ended up costing millions of Soviet lives. As word of this filtered down to society at large, it opened the flood gates to an outpouring of repressed experience. Soviet citizens, authors, and filmmakers felt empowered to speak of the war not only as a moment when the great Soviet nation proved its mettle, but as a moment of individual and collective trauma. Cranes was not the first film to re-evaluate the war from this perspective, but it was the most daring and the most successful, paving the way for masterpieces such as Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, Grigori Chukhrai1959) and Ivanovo Detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky 1962).
The film also became an important showpiece for the new Soviet cinema abroad. In 1958 it won the Golden Palm at Cannes and enjoyed extensive distribution in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia. In 1959-1960 Cranes was one of seven films selected as part of a landmark cultural exchange between the US and the USSR. The film was distributed by Warner Bros at the request of the US Department of State, and played at New York’s Fine Arts Theater immediately following the run of The 400 Blows.American newspapers championed the film’s anti-war message and its “universal themes”. Samoilova was compared to Audrey Hepburn and praised for her “subtle beauty” and “exquisite tenderness.” Although the film would eventually be chastised at home for going too far and falling under the sway of modernism and formalism, perhaps it can best be remembered as a work of art that bridged the Cold War divide, proving that the Soviets were, in the words of the Manchester Guardian, “human beings,” too.
Veronica, amidst the crowd greeting returning soldiers, finally accepts that Boris is never coming back
Any realistic portrayal of World War II wasn't permitted when the Soviet Union was under the strict and dominating control of Joseph Stalin. "The effective prohibition on any honest depiction of the war until Stalin's death paralyzed cinema," wrote Josephine Wall. Stalin controlled the film industry with an iron fist and used fear, murder and bureaucratic intervention while many Soviet film artists felt paralyzed while in the process of creating and releasing their films. Because of such restrictions film productions were at a devastating low, with only nine feature films being released in 1951. When Stalin's death occurred in 1953 following the Khrushchev's denunciation of the Twentieth Communist Party Congress in February 1956, that resulted in what many called a 'thaw' which was a feeling that occurred throughout the public and culture of the Soviet Union. Because of this thaw, Soviet cinema was able to abandon the monotonous cliches and rote optimism of the Stalin era and now had the complete freedom to represent the horrific and traumatic reality of World War II and of its people. Expressing to the Soviet society, culture and the rest of the world the horrific losses and hard-aches that their country had to endure, this opened up the people to ambivalence, uncertainty and cinematic scrutiny. Mikhail's Kaltozov's brilliant film The Cranes are Flying was one of these landmark films, a fresh and liberating story that is considered not only one of the very first but also one of the very best of the post-Stalin cinema. The film tells a simple and old fashioned story about a patriotic and heroic boy who volunteers to defend his homeland, leaving his lover alone to wait for his inevitable return while he is sent to the front lines. When the film was released it became an international success winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes and being hailed as a revelation for the Soviet cinema.And yet even today contemporary viewers will find the film just as equally profound and powerful as viewers did when the film was first released, because it explores such universal and timeless themes that men go through when away from their loved ones, and what women go through when helplessly waiting for their return. What makes The Cranes Are Flying especially extraordinary is the beautiful handheld camerawork which was done by Sergei Urasevsky. Some of the most beautiful sequences in the film involve the love stricken Veronica as she weaves in and out of traffic frantically searching for her loved one, excitingly dashes up a winding staircase after a romantic night through the bank of a river, and rushes alongside a moving train in which the camera assumes her emotionally distraught and confused point of view as she in the heat of the moment dizzily rescues a young child before being struck by a truck.
A couple named Boris and Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova) are galloping across a bridge completely in love within the streets of Moscow. "Stop Squirrel, (Boris's nickname for Veronica). Put these on,” Boris quickly tells Veronica when she accidentally loses one of her shoes. They stop to watch cranes flying in the sky and Veronica sings a song to Boris, "Cranes like, ships, sailing in the sky. White ones grey ones. With long breaks they fly." They both get drenched with a sudden sprinkler hose and the two take off and continue their romantic walk across the bank of the river until it gets late. Boris than takes Veronica to her home as the two sneak in quietly knowing her parents are asleep.
The two plan another rendezvous at the river but when the bark of Veronica’s dog frightens them Veronica quickly heads upstairs. When Boris dashes up the winding staircase to follow her, the camera beautifully follows him. Boris takes a quick rest on the staircase but not before getting scared off again by the bark of the family dog, and finally leaves. Veronica sneaks off to bed trying not to awaken her parents but her mother is secretly awake and whispers to her husband that she believes her daughter is crazy about Boris. The father says, "And he about her. That's what love is, my dear: a harmless mental illness." Boris lives with his father Fyodor Ivanovich who is a doctor, his mother, his sister Irina and his cousin Mark. When Boris arrives home his mother and father are both frustrated with him as well, as Mark who is still half asleep asks if Boris tore the jacket he let him borrow for that night.
The next morning the Ivanovich family is sitting down for breakfast while Boris decides to sleep in after working extra hours at the local factory. Suddenly the family hears the announcement that war has broke out in Moscow and the country responds with great patriotic fervor. Because of the war Boris is now working overtime at the local factory day and night, not being able to come through and meet up with Veronica like he promised. Boris's cousin Mark meets Veronica at her and Boris meeting place which is along the bank of the river and informs her on why Boris hasn't been able to see her. Mark tells her to not lose her head during wartime and to lead a normal life. Mark says that he has been dreaming of dedicating a piano concerto for Veronica and she asks Mark if he will be drafted or not. He says, "I doubt it. The most talented people will be exempt." He takes her hand but she pushes it away and Mark tells her that he promised he wouldn't do that but he couldn't help himself. Veronica feels uncomfortable by Mark’s sudden approaches and decides to leave.
Later that evening Veronica and Boris are playing tug of war with his window curtain at his home and Veronica teases and says his cousin Mark is hansom. Boris doesn't get jealous at Veronica’s comment and Boris informs Veronica that he might be drafted even though she believes there is still a chance Boris will be exempt like his cousin. Veronica starts to go on about their upcoming wedding but suddenly Stepan arrives and informs Boris that their notices came in for the both of them. Confused, Boris finally reveals to Veronica that he and Stepan volunteered for the army to defend their homeland from their attackers and Veronica is greatly saddened. Boris tells Veronica that he didn't want to tell her that day because it was her birthday tomorrow but she is still deeply hurt that he volunteered and didn't think about them. "Go. We'll say good-by later," she tells him. When arriving home Boris packs his things and tells his mother to give Veronica a birthday present he got for her which is of a stuffed animal squirrel which also includes a written note for Veronica inside an acorn basket. Boris than says to his mother, "And later, if things are hard for her...After all, this is war. Help her out."
Fyodor arrives home and the family all sit down and have one last drink before Boris leaves for war. The dinner is suddenly interrupted by two young girls from Boris's factory who arrive to wish Boris a patriotic farewell tribute, while Fyodor impatiently mocks the cliques and the farewell rituals. Veronica heads to Boris’s home to give him his farewell as she makes her way across a street full of military tanks and troops marching through the town. Unfortunately when Veronica arrives with a care package full of crackers and cookies it is already too late as Boris has already left to the assembly station. Boris's mother gives Veronica the stuff animal squirrel that Boris has left for her but Veronica seems not able to find the note. In a rush Veronica quickly makes her way to the assembly station in Zvenigroodskaya to catch Boris before he leaves. While Boris is at the assembly station with his sister Irina, he looks out for Veronica hoping she will arrive so they can say their farewells as the camera pans towards several other men and women embracing one another saying their goodbyes. Veronica finally arrives but seems to not find Boris within the crowd. When she does see him and call out to him it's unfortunately too late because Boris has to fall in with the other troops, and in a desperate act Veronica throws Boris the gift she has brought him, as the crackers and cookies smash onto the road.
Weeks pass and Boris hasn't written to Veronica as her mother supports her through this troubled time. The German blitzkrieg begins and they're several enemy air raids as Veronica and all of the townspeople make their way into the subway for safety. During one particular air raid Veronica’s mother and father refuse to not go believing it's another simple drill and are unfortunately killed in the bombing. In a highly intense and emotional scene Veronica darts past rubble and flames to look for her parents only to find the family clock is still intact in the fourth-floor apartment as it stands tall over the crumbled destruction of the city, its pendulum still swinging. The Ivanovich family decide to take Veronica in and give Boris's spare room to her.
Because Fyodor is at the hospital day and night, he asks Mark to take care of Veronica. Over the next few months Veronica still hears no news of Boris as Mark spends time with her to comfort her and lift her spirits. He plays her a song on the piano saying to her, "If it weren't for the damned war, I'd be playing this at Tchaikovsky Hall." When another drill occurs Veronica rejects going down to the subway for shelter and so Mark furiously starts playing the piano to try and blur out the sound of the sirens. After a bomb blows in one of the windows Veronica falls into Mark's arms. During the bomb attack Mark announces to Veronica his love for her but she keeps trying to reject him by slapping his face repeatedly. After the air raid starts to calm down Veronica gives up fighting Mark and seems to somehow pass out. (This scene is slightly unclear.)
While Mark carries Veronica's unconscious body across the room towards the bed to rape her his feet step on pieces of broken glass as the shot dissolves into a shot of Boris, his friend Stepan and several of his troops walking through the mud as they try to deliver a injured man to safety. Boris stops to show his fellow comrade’s a picture of Veronica who is patiently waiting for him at home. When a comrade named Sachkov (an undisciplined musician who plays a harmonica) suggests to Boris that Veronica is probably having an affair back home Boris hits him and the fight is quickly broken up by their superior. The superiors takes a look at Veronica's photo and says to Boris that she looks like a woman worth fighting for and hands it back to him. Boris gives the photograph of Veronica to Stepan and asks him not to lose it. Later on during a bloody battle Boris saves the life of Shackov but during a retreat Boris is shot after carrying an injured Shackov on his back through the wet swamps. Before collapsing Boris has several surreal like visions of him and Veronica getting married and both of their families all happily celebrating.
The film cuts back to the Ivanovich home as Mark and Veronica announce to the family that the two of them are getting married (Because of the rape Veronica seems to be shamed into marrying Mark) and everyone feels betrayed by this news especially Fyodor and Irina. A period of time pasts and Boris is declared missing in action to the family, and everyone accepts that he is probably dead except for Veronica who is now married to Mark. And as the war intensifies the Ivanovich family are forced to move out of Moscow and move further East to escape the German offensive, living in cramped tenements while Fyodor works as a general practitioner along with Irina in the military hospital. Veronica works at the hospital part time as a volunteer to help the injured troops as day after day Veronica is still hoping Boris will be found alive. Every day Veronica hopes she will receive a letter from Boris, which confuses the other workers since she is already married to Mark. The workers gossip about Veronica saying, "She wanders around like a ghost. All nerves. Always waiting for a letter. From whom? Her husband's right here. Not like us, soldier's wives." While working Veronica tends to hum the lines "Cranes like, ships, sailing in the sky" a song which is stuck in her head, which was a song she used to sing to Boris.
Depressed and irritable Veronica doesn't seem truly happy being married to Mark, even though mother Ivanovich keeps trying to comfort Veronica and suggest that she let go of Boris and forget about the past. Veronica tries to get away from her unhappy marriage and home life as much as possible by volunteering more hours as the hospital. One day an angry wounded soldier starts to lose it when he finds out his girlfriend didn't wait for him and married someone else. When Veronica learns of this, one of the soldiers says, "Broads like that are worse than fascists. They aim right at the heart."
Feeling the collective condemnation of all the other soldiers who support their friend’s pain, Veronica quickly leaves the room while Fyodor overhears all the commotion from the patients and quickly calms everyone down. When hearing why the patient is making such a ruckus he tells the soldier, "Are you trying to get discharged? Big deal! So your bride ran off. You should be glad! She isn't worth a penny if she would trade a handsome guy like you, a real hero for some rat sitting out the war at home. It's she who's forfeited her happiness, not you! And that's what she deserves! She's got a petty soul! People like her can't understand how much suffering we've gone through. You stood up to death itself! You looked death in the face. You approached it with your chest stuck out. And she couldn't even pass the little test of time. Women like her...deserve only our contempt. There can be no forgiveness for them!"
Veronica overhears this speech that Fyoder makes and quickly leaves the hospital with a feeling a guilt, believing the woman Fyodor described was her. When making her way slowly down the road Veronica starts to make a run, quickly dashing along with a moving train. During this dizzying emotional ordeal across a bridge Veronica notices a child almost being struck by a truck in the street and she quickly runs and out and saves him. After saving the boy she asks where he is from and the boy tells her that his name is Boris who has been separated from his family at the station.
Veronica decides to take the boy home to the Ivanovich family as they try to find a way to stop the boy from crying. Veronica looks for the squirrel that was a gift from Boris to comfort the child, but is shocked to learn that Mark took it. When asked where to find Mark Irina at first won't tell Veronica the truth because of her bitterness for Veronica marrying Mark and not waiting for Boris’s return. Veronica demands Iris tells her the truth on where Mark is and Irina reveals to her that he is having an affair with another woman named Antonina and he is at her house at this very moment attending a party. Veronica is stunned by this news and feels the need to do something. Irina tells Veronica to wait for Mark to come back and Veronica says, "Wait? Always waiting. I'm always waiting. I've had enough!"
At the birthday party, Mark and Antonina seem to be dancing as one of the guests pick up the squirrel gift that Mark arrived with and accidentally finds the acorn basket and the note that was originally written for Veronica. "A birthday note for me?" the guest says as several of the party guests surround her as she reads it out loud. Veronica arrives at the party and demands where the squirrel is, and when seeing the note being read that was personally left for her she grabs it from the guests.
It reads: "My only love, happy birthday to you. On this day you came into this world, it's hard to leave you. But what can we do? This is war. There's no way around it. We can't continue living happily as we did before when death stalks our land. But we'll be happy again. I love you. I have faith in you. Your Boris." Mark tells Veronica that he didn't know, go home and he'll be there soon. Veronica turns around and slaps Mark before rushing out of the home.
Back at the hospital Fyodor makes an astonishing discovery, in that Mark's deferral from conscription was not because he was considered too talented to be drafted, as he has claimed, but because he bribed an official in his name. Fyodor suddenly realizes the truth about Mark and that he has betrayed Russia, the family, and has taken advantage of Veronica. That evening Fyodor exposes Mark's lies at their home after Veronica and Mark return from the party. Fyodor wants Veronica to be present for this shocking news as he asks Mark, "Do you think anyone wants to send his son to war? Or do you think others must pay for your welfare, for your life, with their hands, their legs, their eyes...their lives....and you owe nothing to anyone?" When Veronica hears the truth about Mark she rushes upstairs to pack her things and leave the Ivanovich home while Fyodor kicks Mark out of the home. Veronica asks Fyodor why he didn't order her thrown out and Fyodor says, "You've been through a terrible ordeal. Only someone without a heart could reproach you. Stay with us." Veronica says she can't but he insists and she eventually agrees.
Some time pasts and one day Sachkov the man that Boris had saved arrives to deliver the message to the Ivanovich family that Boris was killed west of Smolensk. Sachkov arrives when the family is gone except for Veronica and the young boy who Veronica earlier saved. (It looks as if the boy is now an orphan and the Ivanovich family decided to take him in.) When Veronica tells Sachkov that she's not part of the family Sachkov tells her the tragic news explaining that he is ordered to also tell Boris's girlfriend. Veronica finally reveals to Sachkov that she is Boris's girlfriend and Sachkov is stunned and slowly takes her hand to comfort her. Veronica asks Sachkov if he saw Boris's body but Sachkov cannot confirm it since the only person who saw him alive was Boris's friend Stepan who is still missing. After the war ends Veronica still holds out for Boris's return believing he still could be alive because no one but Boris's friend Stepan could confirm his death.
At the train station veterans are finally returning home as the townspeople are throwing a victory parade. Veronica goes through the crowd of reuniting families and lovers holding a batch of flowers hoping to find Boris. Veronica runs into Stepan only to learn that Boris is not with him. When Stephan pulls out the photo of her that he held for Boris, Veronica knows that Boris is indeed dead and runs off sopping into the crowd. After a powerful speech for the returning troops an elderly man tells Veronica to give those flowers she has to whomever there for. Veronica tops crying and decides to hand out her flowers to everyone around her, finally accepting that her loved one is gone, but not forgotten. Fyodor suddenly joins her in the crowd as the two stare up into the sky and watch cranes fly over Moscow.
The Soviet Union lost some ten percent of its prewar population in World War II. For years, Soviet cinema was able to represent this traumatic loss only within strict limits, in terms of glossy patriotic clichés about all-wise leaders and the necessity and nobility of sacrifice. “The effective prohibition on any honest depiction of the war until Stalin’s death paralyzed cinema,” wrote Josephine Woll in her valuable study, RealImages: SovietCinemaandtheThaw (I.B. Tauris, 2000). The process of getting films made and released was hobbled by fear, rumor, and arbitrary bureaucratic intervention. Such perils and roadblocks had a deadening effect: film production fell to a low of nine feature films released in 1951.
Stalin’s death in 1953, and more particularly Khrushchev’s famous denunciation of “the cult of personality” at the Twentieth Communist Party Congress in February 1956, resulted in a “thaw” that was felt throughout Soviet society and culture. In film, the benefits of the thaw were especially far-reaching, as filmmakers abandoned the monotonous clichés and rote optimism of the Stalin era and opened the private lives of ordinary people to a cinematic scrutiny that embraced ambivalence and uncertainty.
TheCranesAreFlying, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov in 1957, is one of the landmarks of Soviet film and, in Josephine Woll’s words, “the first indisputable masterpiece of post-Stalin cinema.” The film was instantly greeted as a revelation in the Soviet Union and became an international success, winning the Palmed’Or at Cannes. Even today, seeing TheCranesAreFlying is a moving experience, and it may not be difficult for contemporary viewers to recapture the sensation which the film is said to have evoked in those who saw it when it was new: that of a fresh wind sweeping through a musty house.
In large and small ways throughout the film, the filmmakers affirm their commitment to personal drama above public platitude. Early in the narrative, which starts on the day of Germany’s surprise invasion of Russia (June 22, 1941), the hero, Boris (Alexei Batalov), volunteers for the front. Avoiding glib appeals to nation and duty, the film foregrounds Boris’ reluctance to tell his lover, Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova) that he has volunteered, and the pain and anxiety felt by Veronica and Boris’s father, Feodor (Vasily Merkuryev), when they learn the truth. The film goes as far as to undercut rote patriotism—in what must have been perceived as a daring stroke in 1957—when Feodor impatiently cuts short and mocks the clichés of a farewell tribute addressed to Boris by two girls from the factory where he works.
The film is also exceptional in refusing to condemn Veronica for her involuntary infidelity to Boris while he is at the front. In Tatiana Samoilova (daughter of Evgenii Samoilov, who starred in Dovzhenko’s Shchors), TheCranesAreFlying unveiled a magnificent screen personality: expressive, sexy, dynamic. Veronica is far from a traditional war-movie heroine (not only by the standard of Soviet war movies), and Feodor’s impassioned denunciation of faithless women is clearly meant to be taken as more than just the party line, but Samoilova makes her character completely sympathetic, down to her bittersweet apotheosis in the moving final sequence.
The Georgian-born Kalatozov, who began his directing career in the silent era, spent several years in Los Angeles during the war on a diplomatic assignment, and seems to have been marked by Hollywood cinema. In TheCranesAreFlying, he treats melodrama with a formal complexity worthy of Frank Borzage, King Vidor, and Vincente Minnelli—finding, with no fear of excess, potent visual correlatives to emotional states.
Especially notable is the camerawork of Sergei Urusevsky, a brilliant cinematographer who first worked with Kalatozov a year before on FirstEchelon (1956). Kalatozov and Urusevsky followed TheCranesAreFlying with TheLetterNeverSent (1959), an interesting if compromised work, and the astonishing visual extravaganza IAmCuba (1964). The two men’s joint body of work deserves to be considered as one of the great multi-film director-cinematographer collaborations, no less innovative and fertile than those of William Wyler and Gregg Toland, Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist, and Jean-Luc Godard and Raoul Coutard.
In AngleofVision (Iskusstvo, 1980), a beautiful book by Maia Merkel’ on Urusevsky, the cameraman discussed his work with Kalatozov: “With us there existed a tacit right of veto. We didn’t agree on it, it wasn’t written down anywhere, but he knew: if I don’t like something, he won’t insist; if he doesn’t like something, me neither. Of course, we tried to persuade each other, we argued…” He then gave his general principles for working with directors. “If you’re going to have it your way, and he his own, the result will be rubbish. You mustn’t push him, and at the same time you mustn’t fulfill only what he wants, you understand? Here the only thing that saves is mutual trust. Then you get something.” Agreeing with Merkel’ that he was never more himself than in the films he made with Kalatozov, Urusevsky recalled: “No one held anyone back, prompted, dictated. The graphic side of the picture depended on me, and Kalatozov attached great importance to that.”
Urusevsky’s handheld cinematography in several scenes of Cranes was a revelation. He had developed his love and talent for handheld shooting during his two years of service as a military cameraman during the war. He and Kalatozov experimented with handheld shooting in FirstEchelon. Urusevsky coined the phrase “off-duty camera” to describe his mobile, alert, sensitive camerawork (whose fullest unmooring would come with IAmCuba).
One of the highlights of TheCranesAreFlying is the sequence in which Veronica, having failed to say goodbye to Boris, rushes in search of him through a crowd of people seeing new recruits off to the front. In the first shot of the sequence, she looks tensely out the window of a moving bus, gets off the bus, and weaves in and out of a crowd—Urusevsky’s handheld camera staying with her all the while, without a cut. Then, unexpectedly, still in the same shot, the camera cranes up to look down at her as she runs between tanks across a street. The mobile camera heightens the urgency of the scene, gives it breadth, depth, and elasticity.
In another impressive sequence, the camera rushes alongside Veronica as she runs after a train. As she dashes up a stairway, the camera assumes her point of view, creating a jagged flurry of lines that renders her emotional state in purely graphic terms. Urusevsky’s undercranked camera accentuates the violent impetuousness of the scene’s movements. The cinematographer commented on this scene in words that convey an entire philosophy: “The camera can express what the actor is unable to portray: his inner sensations. The cameraman must act with the actors.”
The virtuosity of the camerawork in Cranes should not conceal the subtlety of the film’s soundtrack and the force of its editing. The early scenes with Veronica and Boris on the bridge and on the staircase of their building establish vibrant and discrete sound environments, in which the resonance of voices and footsteps is specific and emotional. When Veronica takes home an abandoned boy she has found in the street, Kalatozov’s comic and atmospheric use of overlapping dialogue is as sophisticated as that of Howard Hawks or Robert Altman. There’s a marvelous moment in which Veronica finally reads Boris’ long delayed goodbye letter: his voice-over seems to transmit the message directly into her head (her eyes are averted from the letter, looking up off-screen), while the irrelevant swing music from a record played at a party provides counterpoint. The straight sound-and-image cut from this richly textured scene to a scene at the hospital is an example of the many strong, expressive contrasts Kalatozov’s editing creates throughout the film.
TheCranesAreFlying is an enduring classic of Russian cinema. Its place is right alongside Grigori Chukhrai’s BalladofaSoldier (1959), Mikhail Romm’s NineDaysofOneYear (1962), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’sChildhood (1962). With them, it’s a haunting work from a brief, bold, and still-challenging period of discovery and experimentation—a period it helped to define.
The Cranes Are Flying was one of the landmarks of Soviet cinema and go alongside other enduring Russian classics like Grigori Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier and Ivan Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood. Josephine Woll's words on The Cranes Are Flying were simply: "The first indisputable masterpiece of post-Stalin cinema." The filmmakers have affirmed that their commitment to the film was about the drama and of its story above anything else, political or not. And yet the film seems to go out of its way as to undercut rote patriotism, especially in the scene where two girls from Boris's work arrive at Ivanovich's home and Fyodor impatiently mocks the cliques of the two girl’s patriotic farewell tribute to Boris before he departs; That scene must of been looked at as a somewhat daring addition especially at that time.
Director Mikhail's Kaltozov's was a Georgian-born man who made his directing debut early in the silent era and later spent years in Los Angeles during the war on a diplomatic assignment learning much about the Hollywood cinema. Within the tone of The Cranes Are Flying they're several touches of American melodrama that could be compared to the works of Frank Borzage and King Vidor. What makes Mikhail's films especially memorable is the extraordinary camerawork by the brilliant cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, who later worked with Kaltozov on such films as The Letter Never Sent which tells the story of Four geologists searching for diamonds in the wilderness of Siberia, and the much acclaimed I Am Cuba which studied Cuba before making its transition to a post-revolutionary society. The two men's joint body of work deserves to be considered alongside such other director-cinematographer collaborations, like Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist, and Jean-Luc Godard and Raoul Coutard.
In the book Angle of Vision in 1980 the cameraman discusses the work he has done with Kalatozov saying: "With us there existed a tacit right of veto. We didn't agree on it, it wasn't written down anywhere, but he knew; if I don't like something, he won't insist; if he doesn't like something, me neither. Of course we tried to persuade each other...we argued...If you're going to have it your way, and he his own, the result will be rubbish. You mustn't push him and at the same time you mustn't fulfill only what he wants, you understand? Here is the only thing that saves is mutual trust. Then you get something." What Urusevsk's accomplished with that handheld camera was a complete artistic revelation. Urusevsky developed a love for handheld shooting during his two years of service as a military cameraman and experimenting with several handheld cameras during the war. There are several astonishing moments with the use of the handheld throughout The Cranes Are Flying; some sequences can even be comparable to the jarring and erratic cuts that were created during the early days of Sergei Eisenstein and of the groundbreaking silent movement of the Soviet Montage.
One scene in particular is the sequence in which Veronica rushes to search for Boris after failing to say goodbye to him earlier at his home. She rushes through a crowd of people as they take new recruits off to the front. The first shot of the sequence comes from her looking tensely out a window of a moving bus. When she gets off the bus the camera follows her as she weaves in and out of traffic and crowds while the camera stays completely with her without one cut. The camera smoothly cranes up to look down at her from farther away as she runs between several large tanks trying to make her way across the busy street. Another sequence is when Veronica and Boris both excitingly dash up a winding staircase after a romantic night as the camera follows their feet quickly scampering up the steps. Another beautiful and more surreal like sequence is the death scene after Boris has been fatally shot. These dream like images of Boris imagining being wed to Veronica beautifully are wiped and blurred into images of the both of their families happily celebrating. These images speed up and become more unclear and disorientating as Boris slowly loses consiousness and collapses onto the ground.
In my favorite sequence in the film, the camera rushes with Veronica as she slowly picks up speed and starts to rush alongside a train. The camera assumes her point of view when she dashes up a stairway as the editing becomes choppy, the shutter speed increases which create a disorientating and jarring feeling that is created entirely to extenuate her emotional and mental breakdown. In a dizzying series of shots, it seems to look as if she is contemplating the idea of suicide, as quick edits are biting at her ankles, as the camera quickly cuts to her frightened and panicked face. These quick rapid cuts and edits along with the intense and emotionally drained drama of the scene seem to come right out from a contemporary action sequence. Add to that the erratic camera assuming her emotionally distraught and confused point of view as she in the heat of the moment dizzily rescues a young child before being struck by a truck, giving this whole sequence a similar feeling of the iconic Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's silent masterpiece Battleship Potemkin.
What makes The Cranes Are Flying such a powerful and honest film is that the story never condemns Veronica for her involuntary infidelity when her lover is out risking his life at the front lines. The film never condemns Boris as well, for deciding to enlist in the war and abandoning young Veronica. Boris and Veronica are both young and naive lovers who fortunately don't know and yet understand the cruel realities of life. Yes, Boris is quite naive when volunteering to defend his homeland, but he is also a brave and patriotic young man who knows that it's morally the right thing to do for his country.
Veronica played by the beautiful Tatiana Samoilova, portrays a sexy, strong, and dynamic personality that completely radiates when on the screen. Veronica is far front the traditional manipulative war movie heroine, who cries, is weak and unable to carry on without having some form of man for a shoulder to cry on. She is a strong level-headed individual who suddenly got struck with a traumatic and devastating experience when losing her entire family in a air raid bombing. And if things couldn't get any worse her confusion and vulnerability is later taking advantage of when she is raped and finds herself in a situation where she forcibly accepts marriage with the rapist, because of shaming a family she clearly respects and loves.
As film scholar Josephine Woll observes, the protagonist Veronika who took Europe by storm with The Cranes Are Flying was instrumental in shaping the post-Stalinist Soviet movies by heralding more complicated, multi-dimensional celluloid heroines and it was not only Soviet audiences that accepted and sympathized with Veronika‘s story. The unlikable character of Mark in the film is undeniably a coward, a rapist and a lying manipulator. He clearly lied about his exemption making up stories to Veronica and his family in that he was clearly too talented to be drafted for the war. When Fyodor finds out that Mark bribed an official in buying him off so he wouldn't have to fight, that devastated Fyodor because courageous men like his son Boris are dying in this war every day while men like Mark believe they don't need to sacrifice anything for anyone.
In that disturbing nightmarish air raid sequence when Mark forcibly raped Veronica, I at first didn't understand what exactly happened and in the beginning thought she just completely gave into his sexual desires. But after several other viewings, I finally saw the horrific rape that Mark had committed on her, but the rape isn't necessarily shown but only subtly implied, which makes the scene even more disturbing. Boris and Veronica are going through their own emotional and physical battles, on the front and at home. When Boris is out on the battlefield he saves the life of one of his men, but gets shot and killed in the process. Ironically the scene before his death one of Boris's superiors sees Veronica's photo and comments that she is a woman worth fighting for...clearly not knowing that she is at home doing her own fighting for herself. Director Kalatozov has an elegant sense of composition and size within several of the frames within the shot. Some of his close-ups remind me of the distorted tight framing of Carl Dreyer's silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc and whereas in other scenes, he pulls back, or raises up high to see the character's small in frame and the landscapes much larger and overpowering in scale, are reminiscent of the stylistic works of director Orson Welles. There are many doubles that make for an important theme of the film. There are two air raids that occur and each air raid has a devastating consequence for Veronica. There are two main men, one of them good (Boris) the other one bad (Mark). There are two undisciplined musicians, one named Sachkov who plays the harmonica and who proves dangerous for Boris on the battleship which is the reason why Boris is killed, and Mark who plays the piano and purposely controls Veronica, first by raping her, the second by marrying her because of her shame. There is the unseen girlfriend who does not outlast the battle and instead remarries another man, and there is Veronica who earlier when rushing to try to say good-bye to Boris, now realizes she can get a second chance after the war is over, and return to the station in hoping to find him among one of the returning troops alive. Last but not least is the young boy that Veronica saves from death and the Ivanovich family eventually adopting the child into their home. Not only is this child's name Boris as well, but raising this child gives Veronica a second chance with her Boris by helping this one live a happy life. At the heartbreaking and at the same time life affirming conclusion of the film, Veronica accepts that her lover Boris is dead and comes to the realization that she is not the only one who is mourning. She decides to pass out flowers that she originally brought for Boris to the thousands of other families who are in mourning, as Fyodor joins her which in a way is showing her that the family loves and forgives her. The Cranes Are Flying ends on a pitch perfect note because the speech that Boris's friend Stepan makes to the people at the victory parade, isn't a speech meant only for the Soviets who died in World War II, but for all the victims, in all the wars, all around the round, who have fought and died leaving such pain and grievance to the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and husbands and wives...and yet these heroes will never be forgotten...
“Dear mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers! The happiness of our reunion is immeasurable. The heart of every Soviet citizen is filled with joy. Joy sings in our hearts. It is victory that has brought us this joy. We have all waited for this moment. Everyone's dizzy with happiness. But we shall not forget those left behind on the battlefield. Time will pass. Towns and villages will be rebuilt. Our wounds will heal. But our fierce hatred of war will never diminish! We share the grief of those who cannot meet their loved ones today, and will do everything to insure that sweethearts are never again parted by war, that mothers need never again fear for their children's lives, that fathers need never again choke back hidden tears. We have won, and we shall live not to destroy, but to build a new life!"