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, Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw (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.
The Cranes Are Flying, 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 Palme d’Or at Cannes. Even today, seeing The Cranes Are Flying 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), The Cranes Are Flying 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 The Cranes Are Flying, 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 First Echelon (1956). Kalatozov and Urusevsky followed The Cranes Are Flying with The Letter Never Sent (1959), an interesting if compromised work, and the astonishing visual extravaganza I Am Cuba (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 Angle of Vision (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 First Echelon. Urusevsky coined the phrase “off-duty camera” to describe his mobile, alert, sensitive camerawork (whose fullest unmooring would come with I Am Cuba).
One of the highlights of The Cranes Are Flying 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.
The Cranes Are Flying is an enduring classic of Russian cinema. Its place is right alongside Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1959), Mikhail Romm’s Nine Days of One Year (1962), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (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.
Chris Fujiwara is the author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press). He is a contributing editor of Hermenaut and writes on film for the Boston Phoenix and other publications.