The Cranes are Flying is a 1957 film, made in the U.S.S.R by Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov (director of seminal Soviet films such as I am Cuba and Letter Never Sent.) It is a point of light seen through a chink in the Iron Curtain, a grounded propaganda piece that stands on its own as high-art. Through some of the tawdry, jingoist propaganda produced by the Soviet Union, this movie was made, you could say, against all odds. It is an essential film, although its’ central plot is somewhat lacking. There are wonderful elements of this story however, a story about two lovers: Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov). Just as Leonard Maltin said about the previous film I reviewed, Playtime, when he called Jaques Tati the “only man in movie history to get a laugh out of the hum of a neon sign!” Mikhail Kalatozov is, in the same way, one of the only directors to wring laughs out of what was a harsh reality for Soviets during and after the war. It even gets us to laugh at the expense of the U.S.S.R, poking fun at production quotas in the form of two broad-shouldered working girls rattling off a Communist maxim while Uncle Fedya (Vasili Merkuryev playing Boris’s jocular father) makes a joke out of their staunch beliefs. “Oh we’ve heard all that before!” he says in a booming voice, medicine-cabinet blotto in his hand. It is this scene and others, that make this film such a disarming time-capsule of Old World sentiment, a strange mix of soaring Soviet ideals and crushing reality.
As mentioned, the plot is simple, involving Boris, his lover Veronika (affectionately nicknamed Squirrel), and his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin). Mark looks like a stiletto knife, harsh and carelessly cruel. When Boris leaves for the German front, Mark makes moves for Veronika (more of which I cannot reveal in this review). Veronika is a real person, not a perfect, soulless proletariat. She has woes and heartbreak, her primary one being her lover Boris. To say more would rob this movie of its simple charm. It is as macular, focusing on the pitfalls of two normal people, as is it vast, showing us the psyche of the Soviet Union before and after the War. It humanizes Soviets and fleshes out the shattered sentiment following the war, as well as the seductively hopeful call to peace. What this movie does and did for the U.S.S.R is best described by the inscription on a gift Tatiana Samoilova received which read, “Finally we see on the Soviet screen a face, not a mask.”
Not a mask.
We see the war encroach upon the U.S.S.R early on in the film, as Boris and Veronika cavort about carelessly, bold steel bridges spangling across the horizon, bland avenues tapering into infinity. They get sprayed by a street-sweeper and giggle lightly. Then everything changes, throwing the entire landscape into discord. This is when Boris goes to the front and Czech hedgehogs start to appear everywhere, all over the rain-dappled squares, appearing in the exact same spots that Boris and Veronika ran through blithely. The harsh aspects of the Soviet cities are entirely uninviting until the end, when the war is over and racing shells skirt happily over the water, rowed by smiling comrades. However, when the war is on, the misty, tank-trap covered city of Moscow has an extra weight to it, as if gravity is trying to pull everybody through the ground. Things sag and there’s a tangible, but ignored, feeling of dread in the air as comrades huddle down into metro stations and German bombs stomp overhead.
This movie is not slow, despite it’s somber story and brief moments of levity. It brushes along with a quick pace and amazing cinematography on the part of Sergey Urusevsky, who shot Mikhail Kalatozov’s other film I Am Cuba. Urusevsky is a kind of wild, filmic dancer. He threads cameras through huge crowds of people, giving us small glimpses into their life. A glimpse of an old lady hugging her son and crying, a baby reaching up to her father out of it’s swaddle. Urusevsky darts through these mobs at varying speeds, sometimes hopping on a crane to catch a grand shot of Veronika running through a trundling motorcade of tanks. He is rather brilliant. Scenes that are not shot like a madcap ballet, are shot with sensitivity and a keen eye to lighting. He is definitely a Soviet cinematographer. His reverence to faces in the crowds, the small stories of small people, shines through in his work as he allows us magnificent views of the lives of others. This reflects Soviet sentiment to a T; the canonization of the common man.
The film is visually beautiful, but is also scored beautifully by Mieczysław Weinberg, a great Polish-Jewish composer, ranked amongst Sergei Prokofiev and other greats. The music is used best in one particular scene in which Mark, the cousin of Boris, plays an insane Weinberg piece on the piano, the sound intermingling with the wail of Air-Raid sirens and bombs falling. Diegesis combines these elements into a bizarre composition of roiling piano and screaming Air-Raid sirens.
The Cranes Are Flying is nothing short of incredible, and definitely worth anybody’s while. It is a moving tribute to the tragedy of war, as well as the human spirit. Additionally, it leaves its mark as a Soviet film with its feet in the firmament, leaving the viewer with a feeling that is human and real while giving us a peek into the Soviet psyche at the time. It is a cinematic triumph as well as a film that humanized people who lived beneath the yoke of one of the world’s most tight-fisted regimes. It doesn’t demonize the West as most Russian films did, it just tells a real story about the struggles of everyday people.
You can see the film online here, but being that it is a beautiful film, I entreat you to rent/find a good transfer of it. 420p does not do it justice.
Words by Luca Foggini. Pictures by Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergey Urusevsky.