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The Cranes Are Flying
cast: : Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov, Vasily Merkurvev, and Aleksandr Shvorin

director: Mikhail Kalatozov

97 minutes (PG) 1957
Nouveaux DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Tom Cropper
At first sight The Cranes Are Flying (aka: Letyat zhuravili) promises little. Made in 1957, this is a film right out of the bowels of Soviet era Russia, so a long tedious lecture on the merits of work, duty and sacrifice might be expected. What you get instead is a soaring epic romance unafraid to beg, borrow or steal facets of classic Hollywood melodrama.

The death of Stalin, and what Kruschev called 'the end of the cult of personality', brought about a thaw in government control. Filmmakers jumped at the chance to make pictures free from the constraints of party doctrine. The result was a string of apolitical love stories that presented Russia in a whole new way. Of these, arguably the most influential was The Cranes Are Flying. It successfully wooed international audiences, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and catapulted its lead, Tatyana Samojlova, to stardom.

The story is relatively straightforward. It follows two young lovers, Veronica (Samojlova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) whose romance is cut short when Boris is called away to war. Left alone she moves in with Boris' family where she falls for and eventually marries his duplicitous cousin Mark. As the war progresses and her fear for Boris grows, she must reconcile her betrayal and find a way to rebuild her life. In many ways the film sticks to traditional Marxist principals. Compare, for example, the heroic factory worker Boris with the untrustworthy bourgeois artist, Mark, but for the most part it works to break free from politics, even daring to adopt a slightly cynical view of party doctrine. Both father and son are seen gently mocking official communist mantra - bold stuff considering the times. Early on the film is pedestrian and uninspiring. The narrative seems eager to dispense with the set-up and move onto more important matters, but from the moment war is declared the film takes a darker turn as Moscow's inhabitants first put up with air raids and then displacement to Siberia to flee the advancing German army.

Tatiana Samojlova is electric as Veronica. Her performance lights up the screen as she gradually loses her soul amidst all the destruction. Her face as she scampers up the steps of a burnt out building is one of terrible desolation, of a woman numb with grief. She captivates the audiences dragging them deep into her despair as her world spirals out of control. Her only solace is in Feodor (Vasily Merkurvev), father to Boris, who represents the heart of the film. His refusal to denounce her despite her betrayal of his son gives the film compassion and a sense of moral ambiguity.

However, the film's true triumph comes in the collaboration between director Mikhail Kalatozishvili and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky. The pair had previously worked together on The First Echelon (1956) and would later collaborate on The Letter Never Sent (1959). Urusevsky's use of handheld cameras, learned while filming war footage, gives the film a gritty realism, combined with some quite stunning technical achievements. Notably, an early shot as the camera spirals up a staircase following Boris. The camera seems suspended midway between the stairs and the floor following Boris' every movement. Later there is a long single take in which the camera follows Veronica off the bus as she hurries through the crowds looking for Boris, before craning up high into the sky to follow her as she zigzags between tanks. The image of a small girl consumed by the machines of war is a defining moment in the film.

The thaw, which helped bring about the renaissance in Russian cinema was relatively short-lived and lasted only until the mid 1960s, but it did offer a brief window of creativity for Russia and its filmmakers. As the first to break through, The Cranes Are Flying retains a special place in the history of world cinema and represents a new message of hope after the dark days of Stalin. Its technical achievements in terms of camerawork set a new high benchmark which the rest of the world would not match for another 20 or so years.
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