The cost to the Soviet population due to the war with Germany from 1941 to 1945 has not been definitively established; the best-circulated estimate, about twenty-seven million, is thought by some scholars to be low by many millions. Under Joseph Stalin’s regime, Soviet cinema could represent the traumatic losses of the war only in clichés about all-wise leaders and noble sacrifice: the locus classicus of this tradition, Mikheil Chiaureli’s The Fall of Berlin (1950), devotes some screen time to the adventures of a big, bluff worker who leaves his beloved to defend his country, but the true hero of the film is the man who directs the war effort, the kindly and unflappable Stalin (played by Mikheil Gelovani, one of several actors who specialized in the role). To get a film made and released during the early postwar period—whether it dealt with the war or not—Soviet filmmakers had to run a gauntlet of fear, rumor, and arbitrary bureaucratic intervention. The numbers tell the result: film production fell to a low of nine features in 1951.
Stalin’s death in 1953 resulted in a “thaw” that was felt throughout Soviet society, especially after a speech given in February 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Communist Party at the time, at the party’s Twentieth Congress, in which he denounced Stalin and his “cult of personality.” In cinema, the benefits of the thaw were far-reaching. Filmmakers felt emboldened to reject the rote optimism of the Stalin era and to find a range of emotional, psychological, and even ideological shadings in stories that portrayed the joys and sorrows of ordinary people. In the second half of the sixties, the vitality of thaw cinema would give way to the drained cynicism that set in after Leonid Brezhnev succeeded Khrushchev as the head of the party. In 1957, however, new possibilities were in the air, and one film defined them with such clarity as to become, in the words of scholar Josephine Woll, “the first indisputable masterpiece of post-Stalin cinema.” At a prerelease screening, Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying produced a collective ecstasy among the film professionals in attendance—the great director Mikhail Romm confessed that he had sat through the whole movie in tears. Today’s viewers can still recapture the sensation that The Cranes Are Flying was said to evoke in those who saw it when it was new: that of a fresh wind sweeping through a musty house.
Throughout the film, Kalatozov affirms his commitment to personal drama over public platitude. Early in the story, which starts on the dawn of the day of Germany’s surprise invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941), the hero, Boris (Alexei Batalov), volunteers for the front. For Boris, doing one’s duty is automatic; his main concern is how to break the news to Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova), the young woman he loves. When Veronica and Boris’s father, the doctor Fyodor (Vasily Merkuryev), learn the truth, the film emphasizes the anxiety they don’t try to conceal. In what must have been perceived as a daring stroke in 1957, Fyodor impatiently mocks and cuts short the clichés of a farewell tribute addressed to Boris by two Komsomol types from the factory where he works.
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