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The Cranes Are Flying

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Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov, The Cranes Are Flying, directed by Mikheil Kalatozishvili
The Festival International du Film is getting under way in Cannes this week -- here is what the jury presided over by Stephen Frears will be watching. What cinéphiles love about Cannes, other than the beautiful starlets and the sun-drenched glamor, is that every year the jury draws attention to movies we all need to watch. I watch a lot of movies, and I watch a lot of foreign movies, but the number of Palme d'or winners that I have yet to see is scandalously high. Last night, I had no intention of watching a movie, but there was this Cannes feature on Turner Classic Movies, which led into the film that won the Palme d'or at Cannes in 1958, Mikheil Kalatozishvili's absolutely gorgeous and bittersweet The Cranes Are Flying (Летят журавли).

At a relatively late point in his career, Kalatozishvili discovered Tatyana Samojlova, who in her first movie appearance sears the lens as Veronika. We meet her in a happy Moscow, after a nuit blanche with her lover, Boris. When war comes to Russia, Boris enlists and is sent to the front, while his pianist brother, Mark, receives an exemption. After some of the most horrifying bombing sequences ever filmed, and not because of the gore, Veronika is taken in by Boris's family. Mark forces himself on Veronika, and they are eventually married, while the family follows the retreat from Moscow into Siberia. This gripping story, amazingly, is told in just over 90 minutes, because of an economic screenplay by Viktor Rozov (based on his own play) and the luscious, weightily narrative cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky, full of gleaming, steely imagery.

As a Soviet film, isn't it just propaganda? The movie was made after Stalin's death, during the years of "The Thaw," after Krushchev made his famous speech in the Communist Party Congress denouncing the era of Stalinist repression. So, the film is a sympathetic portrait of the Russian people under attack by fascist Germany, with tear-filled patriotic moments, but there is no glorification of the Soviet army and the secret police and a dirty party official come in for (relatively) harsh criticism. In particular, there are some long shots that must have been nearly impossible to shoot, as when the camera follows the restless searching of Boris for Veronika before he is shipped off with his regiment. We see a series of little scenes, all representing the anguish of departure. The same kind of sequence is repeated when Veronika searches through the crowd of soldiers who have come back to Moscow.

Some of the images created by Kalatozishvili and Urusevsky deserve to be as famous as any in the cinema. When Veronika runs up the stairs of her bombed apartment building and finds that her home has been mostly blown to bits, a clock that has somehow survived the explosion is still ticking away in the hall. The opening sequence with Veronika and Boris, happy lovers cavorting in an exquisitely shot Moscow, features striking long-distance tableaux. In an image that is repeated and significant, glistening barricades, made by welding steel girters together, are laid along a street like enormous jacks in a child's playground. The new digital print available on DVD from the most worthy Criterion Collection should go on your wish list.

Criterion Collection CRA040


Clayton Koonce said...

It's on my wish list now. I've never seen this movie, but does the score include a song called either Zhuravli or Letyat zhuravli? The song suggests that soldiers who die in battle turn into white cranes. Hvorostovsky included it in his "Where are you, my brothers?" album on Delos. He sings it to good effect, but I heard a recording of an even more inspired rendition in college. I'm guessing that the singer there was Mark Bernes, a popular Russian singer who also appeared in movies and would have been active when this movie was made.

Charles T. Downey said...

Clayton, I had not made that connection. I seem to recall that Hvorostovsky also sang that song at his recital at the Kennedy Center last year.