The Cranes are Flying, USSR, 1957
Dir: Mikhail Kalatozov
Starring: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov, Vasili Merkuryev
I've started this review several times now. Each time I stop mid-way through and start over again. I don't know how to explain the brilliance of Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying, except to say that it is, in many ways, the Citizen Kane of Russian wartime romances. In as many ways that Orson Welles’s seminal film was technically brilliant, The Cranes Are Flying (Letyat Zhuravli) matches it with quiet and unassuming precision. Take a film, produced only a few years after the death of the world’s most famous dictator who censored all forms of art and film during his reign, a film that revolutionized the Soviet film industry before world cinema was changed by the fast talking French New Wave, and you have 95 minutes that will change the way you think about movies.
The tragic story trails the lost love of Veronika and Boris, a young couple torn apart by the eruption of World War II. The innovative cinematography brought gloriously to the screen by Sergei Urusevsky, is moving art at its finest. Hailed as a masterpiece after its release in 1957, The Cranes Are Flying remains the only Russian film to ever win top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, the prestigious Palme D'or award, in 1958. The film is a gut wrenching emotional ride that is as beautiful to look at as the most prized works of Michelangelo or Van Gogh.
Its lead star is the beautiful, vivacious, dark haired Tatyana Samojlova, who plays Veronika. The infamous movie starlet Norma Desmond, immortalized on screen by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Blvd. described the Silent Movie Era best, “We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!” I noted the French masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc in a previous review, which featured a stunning performance by its lead actress Maria Falconetti. Her performance was enhanced, not limited, by the fact that it was a silent film that featured no dialogue, and no music of any kind. It was her face that made the movie so memorable.
In The Cranes Are Flying, it is Samojlova’s appearance that drives the dagger right into our hearts. She is stunningly beautiful, but there is something unique about her facial structure. It is as if pain and heartbreak was already built into her face, hidden behind gorgeous eyes and lips and nose. Her bravura performance earned her accolades and she was invited to work in Hollywood with the best directors of the period. However, communism was still prevalent in the USSR and she was refused entry into America, a democratic state. Her career was cut short by the fact that she was not allowed to star in films made outside of the Soviet Union. She made only nine more films until she stopped acting altogether in 1975.
The Cranes Are Flying has endured as a landmark film in classic Russian cinema. My only fear is that words are incapable of doing the film proper justice. It is a harrowing account of the horrors of war, and a touching story of love that never came to be. Watch it for yourselves, and you will be pleasantly surprised at a lavishly put together film that speaks to the mind, body and soul of any viewer who observes it.