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Into the Heart of War: Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying

By Jeremy Carr.

According to Ian Christie, Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying is “in many ways the most important post-war Soviet film.” Christie, who is interviewed for the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Kalatozov’s 1957 feature, regards the film as a turning point in the nation’s cinematic history, embodying a newfound spirit that contrasted greatly with titles coming from the region’s pre-war period and those that were immediately realized just after World War II. These films, which idealized an agrarian lifestyle and were correspondingly beholden to the party line, bore little resemblance to the realities of their intended citizenry. Typically absent from their stories were representations of adaptive yet disenchanted Soviet youth and the women who were left behind to suffer the losses and contend with the home front devastation. Written with Viktor Rozov, loosely based on his play, “Eternally Alive,” The Cranes Are Flying reconciles both cultural facets, and with the advantage of a recent liberalization of the arts – a productive thaw in the frozen rigors of Stalinist dogma – the picture helped breathe new life into the domestic medium, even if, as it turned out, that liberation proved to be a transitory prospect.

“The point of view…is one of guided mobility: boundless, breathtaking movements dashing about in an exercised multiplicity of camera angles.”

The youthful qualities of The Cranes Are Flying are of foremost preliminary focus. Picking up with the early morning outing of young couple Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov), Kalatozov presents a euphoric portrait of flourishing love. The two skip joyously atop a bridge, holding hands and running along without an apparent care in the world. They are playful in their impulsive behavior and their starry-eyed banter (Boris’ perpetual pet name for Veronika is “squirrel”), and although their romance is perhaps grudgingly accepted by their parents, even if it keeps them out all hours of the night, the elders recognize an increasingly rare and increasingly endangered innocence. Arriving to their respective homes, identically leaping onto their separate beds, the lovers’ heads are spinning, as Veronika’s mother remarks. Yes, but as her father counters, “That’s love, my dear: a mutual giddiness.” The amorous idealism of these early sequences, by far the lightest moments to be found in The Cranes Are Flying, are nevertheless burdened by a simultaneously dreadful notion of impermanence: it’s too ecstatic, too good to be true, too good to last. At one point, Veronika stops to revel at the sight of cranes in flight, only to have both she and Boris doused by a passing street cleaner. “That’s what you get,” he says. “You and your cranes.” They shrug off the drenching, but it doesn’t prevent Kalatozov from suggesting the sudden wash back to reality is also an understated harbinger of things to come.

Despite the generally love-struck tone of the film’s initial episode – conveyed by the romantic gestures, lighting techniques, and camera maneuvers – hanging over this early portion of The Cranes Are Flying is the impending war and looming draft. When it’s discovered Boris actually volunteered for service, his decision, as understandable as it may be in terms of civic duty, is also greeted by Veronika with a tinge of betrayal. Girls from a local factory committee do their trivial part to commemorate Boris’ departure, but there is otherwise little in the way of celebratory occasion. Instead, worsening his deployment and the heartbreak shared by he and Veronika is a rapid succession of missed connections and misunderstandings, the chaotic valediction of soldiers causing the two to overlook each other at the assembly grounds and for Veronika to neglect the letter hidden in a gift Boris left behind; both oversights prove tragically consequential. As Kalatozov’s camera tracks along the spread of individuals preparing to leave and those who have gathered to see the men off, forlorn songs and expressions of sadness betray the ostensibly compulsory fanfare. Soon after, with the onset of war, the city is shrouded in dampness, quieted by cold, and dispirited by the barricades that block the city streets and the air raids that send residents clamoring for underground shelters. The battlefront is even worse. It’s squalid and decrepit, and it is there where Boris is gunned down in a muddled incursion that propels him into a dizzying delirium of memories and fantasies before he finally falls to the ground.

Back in Moscow, the German blitzkrieg has forced Boris’ family to flee, and when her home is destroyed and her own family killed, Veronika is summoned along with them. The kindly gesture is undercut by the pitiless relationship between she and Boris’ cousin, Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), who had always desired the young woman and takes the unsettled opportunity to viciously enact his lusty attentions. During one evening’s aerial onslaught, the obliteration outdoors is paralleled by a sexual assault inside, which violently shatters any illusion of refuge. Conditions worsen. The winter is hard and daunting, Mark and Veronika are sharply antagonistic, and she withdrawals from her emotions, becoming a shell of her formerly ebullient self, like a “ghost.” Though sullen and wracked with guilt, she holds out hope for Boris’ return, but all she receives, as potent as it is, is a touching revelation of what was and could have been.

Appearing in just her second feature, Samoylova is the heartfelt core of The Cranes Are Flying, the center around which the emotional bearing of the film revolves. In the penetrating force of her agony and the tremulous encouragement of her consoling realization, she assumes the fundamental, incredibly sympathetic role of individual identification. She is, writes Chris Fujiwara for Criterion, “striking not just for her beauty but for her unselfconscious, almost awkward expressiveness.” Acting with remarkably little pretense or demonstrative priming (which, given the heightened nature of the film, would have been expected), Samoylova is an objective vessel for a range of sentiments rarely detouring from the picture’s tender initial thrust. As critic Bosley Crowther noted in the New York Times, “Believe it or not, [The Cranes Are Flying] is a picture about two young people romantically in love – in love with each other, that is, and not with a tractor or the Soviet state.” This disparity shines through, via Samoylova’s subtle grace, in the film’s final sequence. The war is over, but while others rejoice, Veronika sobs in a bouquet flowers, eventually finding a peace of her own and disseminating the floral arrangement amongst the gathered masses. But despite the perceived patriotism of the situation and its ratified national uplift, this denouement is not purely political. Rather, with the affecting power resting on the face of Samoylova, her resigned transformation often seen in intensely isolated close-up, it is not only the war’s ceasing we celebrate, but the fact Veronika persisted and came through, her amiable humanity intact.

Samoilova may therefore be the enduring personage of The Cranes Are Flying, the primary catalyst for our responsive engagement, but it’s more likely viewers will be struck by the film’s conspicuous visual presentation. Alongside interviews with actor Alexei Batalov and filmmaker Claude Lelouch, the Criterion disc includes an audio interview with Kalatozov, from 1961, a 2009 documentary about the director, and a segment of a 2008 program about the film’s cinematography. The one common refrain echoed in all these supplements is the impact of Kalatozov’s pronounced formal vision. “I believe in poetic cinema,” said the Georgian-born filmmaker, a vivid, soulful form he likens to compatriots Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and Dovzhenko. More than these three, however, Kalatozov found a kindred “creative collaborator” in cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky, who was able to operate along the same filmic wavelength.

Kalatozov contends the viewer shouldn’t be aware of the camera, brushing aside the seeming contradiction of his statement (given how visually distinctive his work is) and endorsing an “aesthetic point of view” that emulates the viewer’s eye and thus makes the viewer “an ally.” This point of view – seen throughout Kalatozov’s oeuvre, though certainly The Cranes Are Flying is exemplary – is one of guided mobility: boundless, breathtaking movements dashing about in an exercised multiplicity of camera angles. The agility of Urusevsky’s technical proficiency sends the camera soaring above diagonal staircases and coasting through the destruction; the swift, sometimes shocking, oftentimes musical fluidity finds an oddly haunting beauty even amid the ruins. While it’s true, as Fujiwara notes, “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,” it is also the case, as he writes, that in finding “visual correlatives to his characters’ spiritual states, Kalatozov had a priceless collaborator in cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky.” The two had first worked together on the 1956 film The First Echelon, after which came The Cranes Are Flying, Letter Never Sent, from 1959, and the extraordinary I Am Cuba, from 1964. “The two men’s joint body of work,” Fujiwara rightly argues, “can be considered one of the great multifilm director-cinematographer collaborations.”

Given its many points of praise, any circulation of The Cranes Are Flying is laudatory. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival (where Samoylova also received special recognition), the film’s sublime rhythm is both dreamlike and visceral, its message of endurance unwavering and perceptive. As the film had already received a DVD release from Criterion, though, and as a result had been available for some time, the true treasures of this recent release are the aforementioned bonus features, which shed new light on Kalatozov and his frequently undervalued body of work. Born Mikheil Kalatozishvili, Kalatozov has, notwithstanding the acclaim of The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba (two of his final four features, out of 20 total), remained a largely discounted filmmaker with many of his films unavailable and seldom seen. Having directed silents, pseudo-documentaries, and fictional narratives, Kalatozov’s films achieved a stunning variety of avant-garde characteristics, and although several of his more obscure productions are merely glimpsed in the disc’s supplements, they provide invaluable insight into a genius beyond those films most routinely identified. His signature style, which he described as “pure cinema,” had been steadily emergent, almost always experimental, radically formalist, and is still worthy of further appreciation.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.

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