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The Cranes Are Flying (1957), winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958, was among several Soviet movies that reached American art theaters in the late 1950s and early 1960s, amazing audiences with their clear commitment to human dignity and compassion. How could the demonized enemy of cold-war America produce thoughtful, civilized fare like My Name Is Ivan (1962), about a twelve-year-old made into a spy, or A Summer to Remember (1960), about a little boy's warm relationship with his family, or Ballad of a Soldier (1959), about a young man who'd rather visit his mother than receive a medal for bravery?
The answer lies in the so-called Thaw that swept across the Soviet Union after dictator Joseph Stalin died in 1953 and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, put liberalized policies into place as part of a de-Stalinization campaign. This period's most sweeping cultural change was the quick decline of Socialist Realism as the only legitimate artistic style. Gone were the days when government bureaucrats presided over every stage of an artist's work, demanding that any state-sponsored project (which meant any project at all) promote Marxist-Leninist dogma in terms any proletarian could understand. Creative people were freer than they'd been for decades to explore their own ideas and intuitions.
Like their American counterparts, the newly liberated Soviet filmmakers still had to think of audience appeal and follow censorship guidelines, so even during the Thaw it was important to find subjects that would break new ground without offending current sensibilities. One strategy was to focus on very young characters who weren't likely to be involved with sex, violence, or scandal. Another was to deal with themes related to World War II, which had killed an astonishingly large number of Soviet people (the most of any country) and remained sorrowfully fresh in the nation's memory. The Cranes Are Flying falls into the second category, giving one of the era's most perceptive treatments of antiwar sentiment-a force that connected strongly with Soviets still profoundly shaken by the trauma their society had undergone.
The main character is Veronika, played by Tatyana Samojlova, who won the best-actress award at Cannes for her performance. She's happily in love with her boyfriend, Boris, and can't imagine anything that could spoil their romance. Her calculations don't include World War II, though, or the patriotism that leads Boris to volunteer for active service. We see his sad fate-he's killed in a swamp while trying to save another soldier-and then we see Veronika's distress when she hears that he's missing in action. This is a half-truth at best, but it allows her to hope Boris is still alive and will eventually return.
In the meanwhile, Veronika has moved in with Boris's relatives after the destruction of her own family by German bombing. Among the people in this crowded household is Boris's cousin, Mark, who has a crush on her. She finally gives in to him-it's implied that he forces her to have sex-and then marries him out of guilt and shame. The marriage quickly turns sour, and much later the family realizes that Mark is immoral and Veronika didn't betray Boris of her own free will. The ending is bittersweet, as Veronika finally understands that Boris is dead but that his memory and devotion, to both her and their country, lives on.
The Cranes Are Flying takes its title from birds that swoop romantically over a river at the beginning and end of the story, symbolizing Veronika's hopes and dreams. Most of the film is less sentimental than this might lead you to expect, though, and its political perspective is especially interesting. In place of Stalinist propaganda touting the virtues of comradeship and collective labor, director Mikhail Kalatozov and screenwriter Viktor Rozov show the difficulties of everyday life in a war-torn city, stressing the need for individuals to carve out their own paths amid the challenges, temptations, and obstacles that confront humanity in every sociopolitical system.
What's most remarkable about The Cranes Are Flying is its brilliant visual style, which draws on two traditions that had galvanized Soviet culture before Socialist Realism took over: the avant-garde theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold and other Constructivist artists, and the cinema of Sergei M. Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, who spearheaded the great montage movement that found undreamed-of possibilities in the art of film editing. A scene exemplifying both approaches is the fateful moment when Veronika finds herself alone with Mark after everyone else has fled to an air-raid shelter. The action is richly theatrical, with curtains billowing in from a shattered window and light waxing and waning from one moment to the next as Veronika fends off Mark's advances with stylized slaps and repetitions of "Nyet" in rhythmic cadences. All this is further heightened by Mariya Timofeyeva's supercharged editing, which pushes the dreamlike moment to the point of hallucination.
Other scenes use different techniques just as creatively, as when bravura moving-camera shots capture Veronika's attempts to bid Boris farewell before he leaves and to find him in an outdoor crowd at the end of the story. Credit for such extraordinary moments goes jointly to director Kalatozov and former army cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, whose camera work is stunningly expressive from start to finish. These two had worked together before and would collaborate again in the future, most notably on the 1964 spectacle I Am Cuba, a piece of procommunist agitprop graced with some of the most eye-boggling camera work in film history. Wits have dubbed it "The Crane Shots Are Flying."
Still, the movie these artists will be most remembered for is The Cranes Are Flying, a sensitively acted, beautifully crafted triumph that stands with the finest works of the special time when it was made.
Producer: Mikhail Kalatozov
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Screenplay: Viktor Rozov, based on his play
Cinematography: S. Urusevsky
Film editing: M. Timofeyeva
Production design: Ye. Svidetelyov
Music: Moisey Vaynberg
Cast: T. Samojlova (Veronika), Aleksey Batalov (Boris), V. Merkuryev (Fyodor Ivanovich), A. Shvorin (Mark), S. Kharitonova (Irina), K. Nikitin (Volodya), V. Zubkov (Stepan), A. Bogdanova (Grandmother), B. Kokovkin (Tyernov), Ye. Kupriyanova (Anna Mikhailovna).
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt