Grade: BCranes are Flying, The (1957)

Director: Mikheil Kalatozishvili

Stars: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksei Batalov

Release Company: Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Kalatozishvili: The Cranes are Flying


Anyone doubting Soviet desires for peace during the Cold War era need look no further than director Mikhail Kalatozov's melodramatic The Cranes are Flying (Letjat zhuravli). Logically, no country that suffered the greatest number of casualties during WWII wants to go through that again, and the ending preaches this simple truth: Memorials are a poor substitute for the human loss. The 1958 Palm d'Or winner at Cannes even dispels commonly held notions about Soviet repression, since the film emphasizes individualism and takes some playful pokes at the collective state. Differing with the political propaganda films that Eisenstein was commissioned to make for the glory of Mother Russia, Kalatozov's film makes a personal statement about the tragedy of human loss.

But political messages and idealistic pleas for peace remain secondary to Sergei Urusevsky's strong black and white cinematography. His artistic composition is striking, and the variety of angles and distances holds interest when relatively little action takes place. Most memorable is a sequence that compares favorably with legendary Eisenstein; as a soldier dies in the mud, his swirling thoughts mingle with revolving barren trees and an earlier running scene up a spiral staircase that transposes smoothly to a wedding party.

This scene ties in closely with Viktor Rosov's screenplay that begins on the same day the Germans invade Russia in the summer of 1941. Factory worker Boris (Aleksei Batalov) and Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova) are young lovers, and their families are not fooled by their clandestine all night meetings. Not that the two families object—they fully expect the two lovers to be married, but the call for soldiers complicates matters. Veronika (pet name of "Squirrel") fantasizes that Boris can get an exemption from the draft, not realizing that dutiful Boris has already volunteered for service.

In a scene that may have inspired Miss Saigon, the two lovers miss a final farewell connection before Boris heads for the front, and Veronica remains unaware of a love note contained within the birthday present he's left her. Meanwhile, Boris' cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) unscrupulously weasels his own draft exemption on the basis of his musical talent and plots to wed Veronika. The scene that breaks down her resistance plays ridiculously.

When Veronika refuses to go to the Moscow subway during an air raid, Mark plays the piano in the family apartment until the bombs begin to hit. Suddenly she rushes to him in terror, only to have him lustily gaze into her eyes and declare his love. Shouting "Nyet, nyet," she slaps him numerously—but soon after Mark informs the family that they are to be wed. The family's disbelief matches the viewers.

Fortunately, Kalatozov tames the melodrama to a degree. Although Mark is soon revealed to be despicably evil, guilt ridden Veronica continues to cling to the hope that her true love remains alive despite hearing no word. Living and working alongside Boris' family in Siberia, she anxiously awaits the daily mail. Samojlova's expressive face communicates her quandary as well as any of the great silent screen actresses, and the camera continuously dances with the actress's body language to show her hopes and sorrows. To drive home the point is a scene where Boris' father challenges a suicidal wounded soldier, who despairs because his girlfriend failed to wait for him to return. Veronika never comments on what she has heard, but her reactions demonstrate her remorse.

That she will find a measure of redemption is little in doubt in such a melodrama, but the storyline is the least of the pleasures for the film. Neither are the didactic closing statements about the worthlessness of war and the hopes for peace, or the bookended visual reference to the V-shaped formation of cranes sailing over the Moscow skies. Although the Criterion Collection provides only a bare bones DVD this time, they rightfully preserve the most important aspect of The Cranes are Flying with a wonderful black and white transfer. In the rich Russian tradition founded by Eisenstein in the silent years, director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky leave a visually pleasing treasure that should be studied by film and history buffs that appreciate film artistry.

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