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.
The rest of the narrative is largely built on the lovers’ separation by the war, which leaves each of them longing to be reunited with the other. The tone of the film darkens, and Veronica becomes a figure trapped by fate. The scene of her rape by Boris’s cousin, Mark (Alexander Shvorin), is formalized and elliptical: in a cavernous apartment lit by the flashes of an ongoing aerial bombardment, diaphanous curtains billowing around them, the two suddenly resemble figures in a graphic novel, exchanging intense stares and face slaps until Veronica appears to faint, allowing Mark to carry her across a floor strewn with shards of glass from the shattered window. The scene is immediately followed by that of Boris’s death at the front from a sniper’s bullet. The hyperbolic lyricism with which the film laments this tragedy answers the scene of Veronica’s ordeal: as Boris slowly collapses, the camera gazes up with him at a swirling skyscape of wintry birch trees, which dissolves into an elaborate hallucination of his and Veronica’s wedding. In the windswept gauze of Veronica’s veil, the ensuing montage echoes the billowing curtains of the rape scene, and the bare birch branches that loom over the dying Boris are turned into clouds of translucent leaves.
In the absence of clear explanation, Veronica’s decision to marry Mark appears to be a self-punishment. The film gives a twist to the familiar theme of the hardships endured by women at home during wartime by portraying Veronica’s domestic suffering as a willed self-victimization (perhaps in identification with the men who are fighting). In its last section, The Cranes Are Flying becomes a narrative of therapy, as Veronica leaves her state of victimhood by discarding the ignoble Mark. The film ultimately grants Veronica two worthier symbolic replacements for the lost Boris: the adopted child Borka (a diminutive of Boris) and the soldier Volodya (Konstantin Nikitin), who bonds with Veronica over a shared sense of guilt about Boris’s fate. Amid the grandeur of Moscow’s celebration for its returning heroes, the final sequence restores Veronica to her original place as an embodiment of hope, as she distributes among the crowd the flowers she had intended for Boris. Juxtaposing loss and recovery, The Cranes Are Flying ends by reintegrating its heroine into the mass of humanity.
The visual exuberance of The Cranes Are Flying reconfirms the earliest impulses of Kalatozov (born, in Georgia, as Mikheil Kalatozishvili). His previous career included two striking silent films, the quasi documentary Salt for Svanetia (1930) and the fictional allegory Nail in the Boot (1932), which were strongly marked by avant-garde aesthetics (and duly castigated by Soviet censors). He spent a year and a half in Los Angeles during World War II on a diplomatic assignment, an experience that enabled him to see Hollywood films that were unavailable in the Soviet Union. Although the book he wrote on the experience, Litso gollivuda (The face of Hollywood, 1949), is predictably highly anti-American, it is likely that Kalatozov was marked by some of these cinematic discoveries. (He apparently thought highly enough of William Dieterle’s work to steal three prints of his films, according to an allegation made privately by Dieterle’s wife.) The Cranes Are Flying is, partly, a melodrama, and the complexity, fluidity, and audacity with which Kalatozov approaches that form recall the peak moments of certain films by Frank Borzage, King Vidor, or Vincente Minnelli.
In finding visual correlatives to his characters’ spiritual states, Kalatozov had a priceless collaborator in cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, with whom he had first worked on The First Echelon (1956), the account of a group of young workers opening up virgin lands to agriculture. Though not much more than a quaint curiosity, The First Echelon announces the stylistic trademarks of The Cranes Are Flying: relentless camera movement, jarring diagonals, a tendency to place the camera low or high. The earlier film also contains occasional bursts of handheld cinematography, at which Urusevsky had become adept during his two years of service as a military cameraman (he was one of the cinematographers on Dovzhenko’s 1943 war documentary Ukraine in Flames). He coined the phrase “off-duty camera” to describe the freedom made possible by taking the camera off its tripod. A whole philosophy of cinema is contained in these words by the cinematographer: “The camera can express what the actor is unable to portray: his inner sensations. The cameraman must act with the actors.”
Kalatozov and Urusevsky followed up The Cranes Are Flying with Letter Never Sent (1959), the chronicle of an ill-fated geological mission to the Siberian taiga, and the astonishing extravaganza I Am Cuba (1964). The two men’s joint body of work can be considered one of the great multifilm director-cinematographer collaborations. In Ugol zreniya (Dialog s Urusevskim) (Angle of vision: Dialogue with Urusevsky, 1980), a beautiful book by Maia Merkel’, the cameraman discusses 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.” In working with a director, he said, a cinematographer “mustn’t push him, and at the same time mustn’t fulfill only what he wants.” He agreed with Merkel’ that he was never more himself than in the films he made with Kalatozov: “No one held anyone back, prompted, dictated. The graphic side of the picture depended on me, and Kalatozov attached great importance to that.”
With The Cranes Are Flying, the off-duty camera comes to the fore. Its unmooring is announced in the first postcredits scene, when Boris, having said goodbye to Veronica in the ground-floor hallway of her building, runs up several flights of stairs after her, the camera whipping ahead of him around the open well of the staircase. Mieczysław Weinberg’s score underlines this bravura camera movement with a tremulous passage in which the violins seem to be dashing upstairs as well. (Throughout the film, the music, too, seems to act along with the camera.) The mimetism of image and sound marks the stairway scene as a privileged moment, the better to imprint it on our memory so that we will recall it when it is repeated—but with Boris now wearing his army uniform, as if he had just run all the way from the front—in the climactic wedding-day hallucination.
One of the highlights of the film is the sequence in which Veronica, having arrived too late for the rushed farewell gathering at Boris’s apartment, joins the crowd of people seeing new recruits off to the front. The sequence begins with Veronica in close-up, looking tensely out the window of a moving bus. When she descends from the bus on the opposite side, Urusevsky’s camera gets off with her, and it continues to follow her, without a cut, as she winds her way through the massive crowd. Miraculously, as she dashes between moving tanks to cross an avenue, the camera, having managed to board a crane, ascends into the sky and looks down at her. Veronica’s urgency is communicated to the camera, which translates it in terms of the breadth, depth, and elasticity required to encompass an epochal event. Another visually impressive moment starts when Veronica, having overheard Fyodor denounce faithless women for the benefit of a wounded and dispirited soldier, takes his words as a personal accusation and runs impulsively into the street. The camera rushes alongside Veronica, who is seemingly bent on the improbable feat of overtaking a moving train and throwing herself in front of it. As she dashes up the stairway of a pedestrian bridge that crosses the train tracks, the camera’s movement becomes frenzied, creating a jagged flurry of lines that render her emotional state in graphic terms. Urusevsky’s undercranked camera accentuates the violence of the scene’s movements.
Kalatozov and Urusevsky also excel at a kind of camera movement that gradually unfolds an altered world. After the sequence of the departure for the front, the film fades in on a close-up of Veronica making a phone call. She leaves the phone booth to rejoin her mother, and the tracking camera reveals that, during the days or weeks since the previous scene, the streets of Moscow have filled with ungainly, X-shaped anti-tank obstructions. Soon afterward, the effect of an air raid on Veronica’s neighborhood is disclosed to us at the same time as Veronica sees it, in a hurtling movement that unites, again, the actor and the camera, and that comes to a stunning stop when she opens the door to her apartment to gaze on a chasmic cityscape of smoldering rubble.
The virtuosity of the camera work in Cranes is so overwhelming that it threatens to overshadow the subtlety of the film’s sound design and editing. The early scenes with Veronica and Boris establish vibrant and discrete sound environments, in which the resonance of voices and footsteps is specific and emotional. Later in the film, when Veronica brings the foundling Borka to her communal apartment, to the consternation of the other residents, Kalatozov’s comic and atmospheric use of overlapping dialogue is as sophisticated as that of Howard Hawks. When Veronica finally reads Boris’s long-delayed goodbye letter, his voice-over seems to transmit the message directly into her head (her eyes look up, averted from the paper), while irrelevant swing music from a record played at the party going on around her provides counterpoint. The sound-and-image cut from this richly textured scene to the glistening, dreamlike whiteness of Fyodor’s hospital is an example of the many strong, expressive contrasts the editing creates throughout the film.
It didn’t take long for the film’s artistry to be widely recognized. Released in October 1957, The Cranes Are Flying received a mostly positive reception from Soviet critics and was embraced by audiences. The following year, Cranes competed at Cannes, winning the Palme d’Or; it would be the only Soviet entrant ever to do so. During the late forties and the fifties, a number of Soviet films had competed in Western festivals and received limited distribution in France, the United States, and elsewhere, but the Cannes triumph ensured Cranes a cultural impact arguably greater than that of any Soviet film since before the war. Its importance tested by time, The Cranes Are Flying endures as a classic of Soviet cinema. Alongside Mikhail Romm’s Nine Days of One Year (1962), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), and Marlen Khutsiev’s I Am Twenty (1965), it haunts the memory as one of the most brilliant works from a brief and still-challenging period of cinematic experimentation and discovery—a period it inaugurated.
This essay has been expanded by the author from one written for the Criterion Collection in 2002.