Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Domestic Reception

When it was released in the last months of 1957, The Cranes Are Flying was a profound revelation for audiences, resonating not only within the Soviet Union but also across international borders. Domestically, the picture defied conventional wisdom by offering an unvarnished and unheroic portrayal of World War II, establishing a precedent in history. It was the first time such authenticity was displayed on the screen. International audiences were shocked by the film’s perceived “unsovietness,” both in content and form. The protagonists were not heroic labor heroes or paragons of socialist civic virtue, but rather average people caught up in the turmoil of World War II.

Film critic Bosley Crowther, writing sardonically in the New York Times, remarked on the film’s departure from typical Soviet tropes: “Believe it or not, it is a picture about two young people romantically in love with each other, that is, and not with a tractor or the Soviet state.” This break from the established norm caused a seismic upheaval in the Soviet film landscape.

The exact human cost borne by the Soviet people throughout the war with Germany from 1941 to 1945 is unknown. While the widely accepted estimate is around 27 million, some experts argue that this figure may be underestimated by several million. Under Joseph Stalin’s rule, Soviet cinema was forced to portray catastrophic wartime losses through clichéd tales honoring wise leaders and great sacrifices. Notably, Mikheil Chiaureli’s The Fall of Berlin exemplifies this pattern, with a working-class hero’s adventures overshadowed by the film’s focus on the beneficent and composed Stalin, played by Mikheil Gelovani.

The Romantic Center

Regardless of thematic focus, film production under Stalin’s postwar period faced a difficult gauntlet of fear, rumor, and unpredictable official intervention. This turbulent climate resulted in a sharp drop in film production, which reached a low of only nine films in 1951.

The romantic entanglement between Boris, a young engineer, and Veronica, a Moscow-based student, serves as the emotional center of the film’s plot. Despite their unimpressive individual characteristics, the couple’s intimate relationship stems from their shared qualities of sensitivity, spontaneity, and genuineness. These characteristics attract them to the audience throughout the film’s early, happy episodes, providing a dramatic contrast to the impending invasion of war, which disturbs not just the serene societal order but also their idyll.

Boris, known for his excess of morality and responsibility, voluntarily enlists in the Soviet army as soon as the German invasion is announced, ignoring any formal call to duty. Predictably, he is one of the first victims, officially declared missing in action. Veronica experiences a series of traumatic events concurrently: chaotic traffic and bustling crowds prevent her from bidding farewell to Boris as he departs for the front lines; her parents are killed in a bombing raid; Boris’ letters stop arriving; and, eventually, during another bombing raid, she is assaulted by Boris’ cousin Mark. She agrees to marry Mark, either out of shame, tiredness, or simple inertia.

The Thaw Period

The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 signaled a period of political thaw that was palpable across Soviet society, especially amplified by Nikita Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalin and his personality cult in a pivotal speech at the party’s Twentieth Congress in February 1956. This thaw extended to the cinema, allowing filmmakers to reject Stalin’s prescribed optimism in favor of exploring a range of emotional, psychological, and ideological complexities in films depicting ordinary people’s joys and tragedies. By the late 1960s, the vitality of thaw cinema had given way to the widespread cynicism that marked the era following Leonid Brezhnev’s takeover of power. However, in 1957, there was a sense of fresh possibilities, exemplified by The Cranes Are Flying, which Josephine Woll describes as “the first indisputable masterpiece of post-Stalin cinema.”

At a pre-release showing, this elicited a collective ecstasy among industry professionals, causing respected director Mikhail Romm to admit that he had seen the entire film through tears. Contemporary viewers have the opportunity to relive the sense that The Cranes Are Flying supposedly instilled in its initial audience—a perception akin to a rejuvenating breeze passing through a sluggish home.

Fundamentally, the film’s structural essence is around Veronica’s journey into adversity and eventual redemption. In the first part, her society milieu perceives her as having done a grievous transgression: betraying a soldier through supposed infidelity. The film’s later half methodically follows her rise from emotional torpor, telling a story of her societal and spiritual reintegration. The Cranes Are Flying, like many notable artistic works, incorporates classical references and draws inspiration from Tolstoy’s themes. The story framework and Veronica’s raw truthfulness recall Natasha Rostova’s fall and salvation in War and Peace. Furthermore, Veronica’s consideration of suicide by leaping from a railway bridge is a direct allusion to Anna Karenina’s tragic destiny, imbuing the film with moving analogies. The primary actress, Tatiana Samoilova, would subsequently play Anna Karenina in Aleksandr Zarkhi’s 1967 adaptation.

Throughout the film, Mikhail Kalatozov maintains a strong dedication to personal drama over trite public clichés. The plot begins on June 22, 1941, at the start of Germany’s unexpected invasion of the Soviet Union, with Boris as the protagonist who eagerly recruits for the front. Boris considers duty to be an automatic imperative, and his primary concern is the delicate process of disclosing this fact to his love interest, Veronica. When Veronica and Boris’ father, the esteemed Dr. Fyodor, learns the truth, he experiences visible fear, which is a break from traditional war movie plots.

Those unfamiliar with Soviet cinema may be surprised by the significance of a film digging into the delicate weave of the female wartime experience. However, within the established canon of war pictures by 1957, such a concentration was not unusual. In her insightful analysis of The Cranes Are Flying, Woll emphasizes that throughout the war, a significant two-thirds of films produced by Soviet studios fell under the genre of “war films,” with the most successful centered on female characters. Woll cites Friedrich Ermler’s She Defends the Motherland, Mark Donskoi’s The Rainbow, Lev Arnshtam’s Zoya, and Sergei Gerasimov’s The Great Land, as prime examples. The disparity in these films is noteworthy, as women are portrayed as positive, almost saint-like emblems of wartime valor, facing inconceivable difficulties and sacrificing their lives for the nation. Grigori Chukhrai’s The Forty-first attempted to inject nuance into this idealized image, but it was the film that truly broke with tradition, presenting a woman perceived as unfaithful, whose endurance was limited, and whose concerns were more aligned with her immediate, affective world than the nation’s overarching fate.

Elegance in Performance

One of the film’s key breakthroughs is the portrayal of Veronica, played with great elegance by Samoilova, the daughter of Evgeny Samoilov, best known for his performance in Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1939 Shchors. Samoilova’s performance goes beyond mere beauty; her unselfconscious and even clumsy expressiveness, especially in the film’s early close-ups, establishes her as a striking screen presence. Samoilova’s facial expressions highlight Veronica’s constant motion throughout the story, making her trip all the more intriguing. The film’s continued interest in Veronica is due not only to Samoilova’s vibrant performance but also to Alexei Batalov’s portrayal of Boris, who responds to her with a sharp appreciation devoid of condescending. Despite their brief on-screen time together, the intensity with which they engage creates moments that linger in the audience’s perception, aided by Kalatozov’s strategic placement of their early-morning idyll in Moscow’s deserted streets as a self-contained prologue before the main titles, conveying the couple’s sense of timeless existence. The director’s use of alternating high and low camera angles throughout the sequences creates a visual dialogue between the metropolis and the sky, offering limitless freedom.

Furthermore, the film did not attempt to explain or judge Veronica’s behavior. The screenplay, an adaptation by Kalatozov of Victor Rozov’s play Vechno zhivye (alternatively rendered as Eternally Alive or Alive Forever), was executed with the playwright’s involvement. Throughout this version, the duo meticulously removed all unnecessary material, including overly sentimental remarks and instances of inner monologue. Kalatozov’s primary goal from the start of the film was to create a film in which visual imagery trumped verbal conversation and individuals’ psychological feelings were portrayed through rather than literary means. As a result, the characters’ reasons remain unspoken; instead, viewers are forced to deduce them via the nuanced acting and emotive photography of the brilliant Sergei Urusevsky. This purposeful style implies that Veronica owes no explanation, either to the spectators or to Soviet society.

The succeeding story is primarily around the lovers’ separation due to the war, with each of them yearning for a reunion. The film’s tone steadily darkens, and Veronica evolves into a character caught in the whims of fate. The scene showing her rape by Boris’ cousin, Mark, has a formal and elliptical approach. Set against the backdrop of a vast apartment lighted by the flashes of an ongoing aerial assault, diaphanous drapes billow over the two individuals, making them look like characters from a graphic novel. They engage in a violent exchange of intense looks and face slaps until Veronica appears to faint, allowing Mark to carry her across a floor littered with pieces of glass from the broken window. This unsettling scene is quickly followed by Boris’ death on the front lines from a sniper’s bullet. The film uses hyperbolic lyricism to grieve this tragic incident, as the camera gazes skyward at a swirling skyscape studded with snowy birch trees, mirroring Boris’ progressive collapse. This melancholy vision transitions perfectly into an elaborate hallucination depicting Boris and Veronica’s wedding. The windswept gauze of Veronica’s veil, shown in the following montage, echoes the billowing drapes from the rape scene, and the naked birch trees looming over the dying Boris transform into clouds of translucent leaves.

The film’s support for Veronica’s right to make errors and shape her life as she sees fit is intricately intertwined throughout the screenplay and cinematography. As Soviet reviewer Maia Turovskaia points out, the ambiguity over whether Veronica’s charm stems from Samoilova’s talent and honesty or Urusevsky’s craft emphasizes the film’s multifaceted portrayal of her character. Turovskaia observes that Urusevsky’s cinematography expertly depicts the nuances of Veronica’s character – the tilt of her head, fleeting stances, the flicker of eyelashes, and the interplay of helplessness, obstinacy, love, and pride.

In the film’s emotionally charged scenes, such as when Veronica discovers her parents’ apartment no longer exists, evades Mark’s approaches, and considers jumping from a railway bridge, the camera closely follows her movements, matching her frenetic pace. This immersive method engages the viewer both physically and emotionally, connecting their perspective with Veronica’s. In the absence of a specific explanation, Veronica’s decision to marry Mark appears to be self-punishment. The film reinterprets the well-known issue of wartime hardships faced by women at home by portraying Veronica’s domestic suffering as intentional self-victimization, possibly in sympathy with the men at war. In the film’s conclusion, The Cranes Are Flying becomes a story of therapeutic advancement as Veronica frees herself from the ignoble Mark. The film gives Veronica two symbolic replacements for the lost Boris: the adopted kid Borka and the soldier Volodya. Veronica and Volodya share a sense of shame about Boris’ demise. In the middle of Moscow’s huge celebration of its returning heroes, the last sequence reinstates Veronica as a symbol of hope, distributing flowers intended for Boris among the crowd. The juxtaposition of loss and recovery culminates in the film’s end, which reintegrates Veronica into the larger humanity.

Unconventional Approach

What defines The Cranes Are Flying is its unconventional approach, which extends beyond form and content. The film’s particular identity is reflected in its exceptionally mobile camera work. Particularly striking are the scenes that begin with close-ups of Veronica and fluidly shift to huge open spaces or dense crowds. Two symmetrical pictures portraying soldiers leaving and returning from the war exemplify this method. The departure scene begins with a close-up of Veronica on a decelerating bus. As she assesses the situation by peeking her head in and out of the bus window, she chooses to get off and walk. Rather than making cuts, the camera does a 180-degree spin to follow her out of the bus and into the crowd. It then expertly continues, possibly on a dolly, trailing her from afar as she weaves through the crowd. Finally, it cuts to a crane view, seeing Veronica recklessly crossing a line of tanks to reach the other side of the street. Surprisingly, the action continues uninterrupted. The visual dynamism of the film reinforces Kalatozov’s early instincts, as he was born as Mikheil Kalatozishvili in Georgia. His prior works included two famous silent films, the quasi-documentary Salt for Svanetia and the fictional allegorical Nail in the Boot, both defined by avant-garde aesthetics and later condemned by Soviet authorities. During World War II, a diplomatic assignment in Los Angeles introduced him to Hollywood films, which influenced his sensibilities. Although his book on the experience, The Face of Hollywood, takes a predictably anti-American tone, impacted by some of these findings. It contains aspects of melodrama, and Kalatozov’s intricacy, fluidity, and audacity in navigating this form recall the apex moments of films like Frank Borzage, King Vidor, and Vincente Minnelli.

When asked in 2011 to choose an image that had a significant influence on his work, renowned American cinematographer Haskell Wexler chose a specific scene from The Cranes Are Flying, and the reasoning behind his decision is clear upon scrutiny. Despite the excellent control of camera movements, the scene has a distinct documentary feel that is influenced by Kalatozov’s early training. In the late 1920s, the director polished his skills in the genre, finding early success with the documentary Salt for Svanetia. This sequence, along with several others in the film, exemplifies the impact of Italian neorealism on Soviet directors in the postwar period. An echo of Pina’s fateful dash along the crowd-lined street in Rome, Open City, can be seen, demonstrating the visual correlation Kalatozov aimed to build with his characters’ spiritual moods.

Kalatozov discovered an indispensable colleague in cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, with whom he initially worked on The First Echelon, a film about a group of youthful workers who open up virgin regions for cultivation. While the earlier video may be considered more than a quaint curiosity, it foreshadows the stylistic traits that would characterize The Cranes Are Flying: constant camera movement, jarring diagonals, and a proclivity for setting the camera at unusual angles. The First Echelon also includes sporadic examples of handheld photography, which Urusevsky mastered during his two years as a military cinematographer, including his participation in Dovzhenko’s 1943 war documentary Ukraine in Flames. Urusevsky used the term “off-duty camera” to describe the freedom that comes with disconnecting the camera from its tripod. Within this perspective, he claims that “the camera can express what the actor is unable to portray: his inner sensations.” “The cameraman must act alongside the actors.”

Visual Influences

Kalatozov and Urusevsky demonstrate their genius in The Cranes Are Flying with a daring yet judicious shift between objective and subjective cameras. The extremely subjective aspects, such as swirling images and superimpositions in Boris’ dying vision, and the canted perspectives with high-contrast lighting in the rape scene, are inspired by German Expressionism. In the latter scene, Mark, photographed from a low angle to approximate Veronica’s point of view, resembles Cesare, the Somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In contrast, in instances like Mark declaring their plan to marry, the camera remains impartial and still, simply filming the event. The painstaking editing and cinematography are not overshadowed by the sound design, which is mostly diegetic except for a few high-impact moments with music by Moisey Vaynberg.

Following The Cranes Are Flying, Kalatozov and Urusevsky worked together on Letter Never Sent, which depicted an ill-fated geological journey to the Siberian taiga, and the astonishing extravaganza I Am Cuba. Their aggregate body of work is one of the best collaborations between director and cinematographer in several films. In Maia Merkel’s book Angle of Vision: Dialogue with Urusevsky, Urusevsky recalls his partnership with Kalatozov, highlighting their tacit veto power. They respected each other’s viewpoints, and differences were resolved by persuasion and argument. Urusevsky emphasizes the significance of not imposing on the filmmaker while also not strictly conforming to the director’s preferences. He claims that in the films he created with Kalatozov, he was most honest, with a collaborative process in which the graphic side of the image relied on him, and Kalatozov placed a high value on this aspect.

Critics praised The Cranes Are Flying for its novel tempo and speed alterations, noting its seamless transitions “from almost static observations of a domestic scene to a sudden swift crescendo of movement.” Bosley Crowther, a renowned critic, detected inspirations from Pudovkin and Dovzhenko, which were modified to fit sound and contemporary screen reportage styles. John Beaufort of The Christian Science Monitor praised the film’s refreshing blend of “realism and lyricism.”

In her analysis, Woll emphasized the film’s “romantic sensibility,” which is defined by its celebration of feeling as an “alternative to officially enshrined values.” This strategy emphasizes the off-duty camera, as shown in the post-credits sequence where Boris races up multiple flights of stairs after Veronica. The camera follows the protagonist around the stairs, accompanied by Mieczysław Weinberg’s score, providing a compelling visual and audio experience. This divergence from typical conventions is heightened in the climactic wedding-day hallucination, in which the unforgettable stairway scene is replayed, this time with Boris in his army uniform, establishing a strong link between the two occasions.

The development of such a morally and aesthetically sophisticated film in 1957 reflects the significant shifts that had occurred in Soviet society since Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress the previous year. A crucial part of these developments was the nation’s reflection on its World War II experience. During the war, representations were molded by propaganda requirements. However, from the end of the war in 1945 until Stalin died in 1953, there was a de facto prohibition on non-official portrayals of the war. Only government-approved, highly idealized images, films, and books were allowed.

Memorable Scenes

A memorable scene in the film happens when Veronica, arriving too late for Boris’ hurried farewell, joins a crowd watching fresh recruits parade to the front. The camera work, beautifully accomplished by Urusevsky, records Veronica’s voyage without a cut as she navigates through the vast crowd, illustrating the breadth, depth, and elasticity required to capture a historic event. A visually spectacular scene occurs when Veronica, prompted by Fyodor’s condemnation of faithless women, rushes into the street. The camera races alongside her as she attempts to overtake a rushing train and fling herself in front of it. The frantic camera movement, along with Urusevsky’s undercranked techniques, gives a pictorial portrayal of her inner distress.

Khrushchev’s “secret speech” kicked off a brief but dramatic period of liberalization known as the “Thaw.” Within this address, Khrushchev freely admitted Stalin’s terrible mistakes during the war, which resulted in significant Soviet losses. As this information spread throughout society, it triggered a flood of previously suppressed experiences. Soviet residents, novelists, and filmmakers felt emboldened to represent the war not only as a symbol of the country’s strength but also as a period of personal and social trauma. The Cranes Are Flying was not the first film to evaluate the war from this angle, but it was the most bold and successful, paving the way for following masterpieces like Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood.

Kalatozov and Urusevsky have exceptional skill in a kind of camera movement that gradually reveals a transformed environment. After the front sequence, the film fades in on a close-up of Veronica making a phone call. As she exits the phone booth to reconnect with her mother, the tracking camera reveals that Moscow’s streets have been littered with awkward, X-shaped anti-tank barriers in the preceding days or weeks. Subsequently, the impact of an air raid on Veronica’s neighborhood is shown simultaneously to both the audience and Veronica herself, connecting the actor and the camera in a dynamic movement that comes to a halt when she opens her apartment door to see a cityscape immersed in smoking rubble.

The film was a key showcase for nascent Soviet filmmaking on the international scene. It won the prestigious Golden Palm at Cannes in 1958 and went on to be widely distributed throughout Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and portions of Asia. In 1959-1960, it was chosen as one of seven films for a historic cultural exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Warner Bros. distributed the picture at the request of the US Department of State, and it premiered prominently at New York’s Fine Arts Theater immediately following the run of The 400 Blows. American newspapers praised the film’s antiwar message and “universal themes.” Samoilova was compared to Audrey Hepburn, with “subtle beauty” and “exquisite tenderness” being praised.

While it was later criticized domestically for its apparent affinity with modernism and formalism, it stands out as a piece of art that transcended Cold War boundaries, humanizing the Soviets in the eyes of worldwide viewers. As reported by the Manchester Guardian, it revealed that the Soviets were, in fact, “human beings.”

October 1957 Premiere

The Cranes Are Flying debuted on the scene with unprecedented artistic brilliance, quickly gaining international appreciation and affection. When it was released in October 1957, the film rapidly drew the attention of Soviet reviewers, who praised its exceptional qualities, while spectators welcomed it wholeheartedly. Its reaction at Cannes the following year elevated its stature to unparalleled heights when it won the prestigious Palme d’Or, marking a historic victory as the only Soviet entry to receive such acclaim. This achievement not only cemented its status as a cultural phenomenon, but it also outperformed the influence of previous Soviet films, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to this day.

The Cannes award sent The Cranes Are Flying into cinematic history, establishing it as a timeless masterpiece of Soviet cinema. Despite the political and social complexity of the time, the film has remained significant and relevant. Along with contemporaries such as Romm’s Nine Days of One Year, Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, and Marlen Khutsiev’s I Am Twenty, it is an indelible symbol of a brief but pivotal period marked by bold experimentation and profound artistic exploration, which it effectively inaugurated.

Even decades after its initial premiere, The Cranes Are Flying continues to enchant audiences and reviewers alike, its lasting appeal transcending time and culture. Its narrative of love, grief, and resilience speaks to spectators on a deeply personal level, cementing its status as an iconic Soviet film masterpiece. As a tribute to its ongoing relevance and tremendous impact, the picture is remembered as one of the most brilliant and influential works of its day.


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