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  Cranes are Flying, The Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow
Year: 1957
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Stars: Tatyana Samoylova, Aleksey Batalov, Vasiliy Merkurev, Aleksandr Shvorin, Svetlana Kharitonova, Konstantin Kadochnikov, Valentin Zubkov, Antonina Bogdanova, Boris Kokovkin, Ekaterina Kupriyanova, Valentina Ananina, Valentina Vladimirova
Genre: War, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: Veronika (Tatyana Samoylova) is very much in love and believes if anything lasts in this world it is this. Her beau is Boris (Aleksey Batalov), who works in a factory in the city, though global events are pressing on the pair, as the Second World War is demanding Soviet men sign up for the recruitment drive and head off to the front. Veronika does not like to think about that, she just wants to be around the object of her affection and not allow the trials and tribulations of the globe interrupt their perfect relationship, but Boris knows he will have to join up with the Army sooner or later, though his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) is also fixated on Veronika, opportunist that he is...

Take a look at the poster for The Cranes are Flying, and you would see almost a cliché of Soviet design, with the two lovers "craning" their necks to watch the titular birds flying overhead, all depicted in a stylised technique: all it needed was a tractor in the background and this couple could have been looking ahead to a bright new Communist future. But the film itself was looking backwards, to acknowledge something that a few years before would never have been brought up in the nation's mass media, which was the terrible cost of the war, and the fact that not every woman who had been left behind had someone to come back to them once the conflict was finally over.

This was approached in such a fresh and innovative manner that the film looked like the work of a young man, giddy with the possibilities cinema can hold. Yet its director was Mikhail Kalatozov, a bureaucrat in his fifties, and as part of the propaganda machine one of the least likely instigators of a New Wave imaginable. However, he had started in the movies with controversial efforts in the thirties before moving behind the scenes, and this represented a return to those days, as if all those years of being thwarted in the limits of his imagination had fallen away and he was as vital as he ever was. If you liked the concept of a second wind in movie careers, then this man was perfect for you.

The Cranes are Flying, or Letyat zhuravli in its original Russian, had of course not arisen in a cultural vacuum, and the man who Kalatozov could thank for being able to express himself as he desired was none other than Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier who had announced a new broom to sweep away the toxicity of the Stalin regime. Stalin had died in 1953, but it took a while for a new liberalism in the government to feed into the arts, which Stalin had had an iron grip upon, and this film, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, seemed to herald that new future the poster indicated everyone in the Soviet Union was looking forward to, one of the first films from that nation for years to make a huge impact on the world, regardless of politics. Watching it and Kalatozov’s innovations and "how did he do that?!" camerawork, it remains a startling, intense piece.

That said, it was not perhaps quite as progressive as the commentators in the fifties and early sixties would have you believe, as the blighted heroine still had to suppress her desires and heartache for the sake of the wider country, a lesson she is rather harshly landed with by the end of the story. Not only that, but many have found the secondary tragedy of her tale of woe, where Mark more or less inveigles his way into marrying her by not giving up despite being well aware she is in love with another man, somewhat hard to believe. Why would Veronika give in so easily, they ask, though she is not quite the pushover they would tell you? That entire storyline seems designed to teach her to get her priorities straight, and the theme that life may not go the way you want, so suck it up and do your best for the community instead is a lot less generous than the film's champions may have liked. Yet scene by scene, from the bombing raid to the extended shot of the heroine pushing through the crowd waving off the fleet of tanks, there was so much here that often looked astonishing. Music by Moisey Vaynberg.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray in beautiful black and white. Those features:

New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New interview with scholar Ian Christie on why the film is a landmark of Soviet cinema
Audio interview from 1961 with director Mikhail Kalatozov
Hurricane Kalatozov, a documentary from 2009 on the Georgian director’s complex relationship with the Soviet government
Segment from a 2008 program about the film's cinematography, featuring original storyboards and an interview with actor Alexei Batalov
Interview from 2001 with filmmaker Claude Lelouch on the film’s French premiere at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival
New English subtitle translation
PLUS: An essay by critic Chris Fujiwara.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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