The Cranes are Flying is a great slice of Soviet cinema, focusing on a small set of characters caught up in epic events. The film chronicles the plight of Veronika, a young woman living in Russia who finds herself and her lover Boris (the most stereotypically Russian name of all time) separated through the horror of WWII. When the film begins the couple is carefree, frolicking across the city for hours on end (much to the chagrin of their stodgy parents). This euphoria quickly deteriorates when Boris enters the army, which sends Veronika into an emotional tailspin. When communication between the couple dissipates things go from bad to worse. Veronika finds herself dealing with not only the fear that she may never see Boris again, but also her own self-loathing due to her behavior back home.
Anchored strongly by the performance of Tatyana Samoilova, The Cranes are Flying is a powerful, rich film, with stirring cinematography and moments of real pathos. That being said, the story sometimes feels like borderline propaganda (especially the ending). This is probably axiomatic considering the context of the film’s release, and was undoubtedly an easier quality to get behind for the generation that lived through the carnage of war.
Thankfully, these moments of unbridled nationalism are kept largely to a minimum. A majority of The Cranes are Flying is devoted solely to Veronika’s struggle to not only survive the war but to not let her despondency totally consume her. In order to convey this sense of swirling desperation, the film builds a strategic relationship between its various settings and its central protagonist. Director Mikhail Kalatozov conveys this primarily through the film’s striking camerawork. His use of tracking shots is breathtaking in certain sequences, particularly during a scene where his camera follows a distressed Veronika as she runs away from a military hospital where she is working. The way that the camera captures images in this sequence strongly reflects the spastic chaos of Veronika’s agonized state.
While Kalatozov’s and DP Sergey Urusevskiy’s craftmanship is beautifully realized and evocative, it can at times feel a bit too blatant. There are several examples of this scattered throughout The Cranes are Flying, most notably during the Blitzkrieg where Veronika’s home (and parents) are destroyed by the bombing. As Veronika rushes through the charred, flaming remnants of her former house, she comes across a clock (untouched by the bombing) that keeps ticking inexorably onward. The filmmakers might as well have held up a sign in the background of this scene; they are basically spelling out the idea that time is apathetic to human affairs.
With scenes like this occasionally marring The Cranes are Flying, significant pressure is placed on the actors to imbue the film with some much-needed nuance. This quality is delivered wonderfully in Tatyana Samoilova’s largely implosive performance. This is work that allegedly made the actress a temporary European sensation, and such approbation is well-deserved. Her performance largely carries the film. The agony written across every line and feature of her face is extraordinary, and never comes across as anything but genuine. The other artists associated with the film also deserve credit for never seeking to demonize Veronika’s actions during the story (there is an infidelity that occurs once Boris leaves for the front). Even more impressive is how the film handles a majority of the Samoilova’s most intense sequences. There is a wonderful restraint that comes across, particularly during the film’s final scenes. Essentially, you won’t be finding geysers of tears or waterfalls of snot here.
The Cranes are Flying is largely compelling throughout its run time. Of course, one is tempted to bestow all of the superlatives on the work of Tatyana Samoilova, purely because of her beauty and the sympathy she elicits throughout the film. Yet, there is more going on here that is worthy of praise. The film offers riveting camerawork. More broadly, it basically presents a turning point for an entire country’s cinematic output. The tribulations of Veronika (and to a lesser degree Boris) are emblematic for the suffering of a whole country, a whole generation. Director Kalatozov seems to be conscious of this responsibility. During the film’s crowd sequences (there are several) his camera lingers on many individual faces in the crowds which feature the rawest of human emotions; the most celebratory and joyful of hellos, and the most agonized and painful of goodbyes.
That seems to be his film’s main idea. It’s a story not about one person but of an entire group of ordinary people swept up into extraordinary circumstances. Despite this strong theme, however, the film does occasionally feel a bit forced, and bit obvious in trying to mollify some of the extreme wounds inflicted on the Soviet nation. This is hammered home in the final scene, which will be difficult to digest for any cynical, 21st century viewer. This sequence conveys that one’s personal losses are subsidiary to the vitality of the nation, undoubtedly a more palatable notion in the immediate aftermath of WWII, but tougher to swallow when living under the shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s unfortunate, as it dates the film and blunts some of The Cranes are Flying’s significant emotional heft. The solace derived through The Fatherland just isn’t what it used to be.