The best love stories are the sad ones, the ones of unrequited love or tragic love, the ones in which lovers do not skip happily into a rosy dawn or sultry sunset. What makes La La Land such a genuine pleasure (and its not lost on me, the strangeness of referencing La La Land when opening this review of Mikhail Kalatozov’s astonishing 1957 film), is that La La Land‘s ending is so bittersweet and tinged with such sadness, the lovers forever parted, the ending suddenly giving the film some meaning, some resonance, some weight, transforming everything we have seen before, its romantic, Hollywood-musical saccharine-soaked sweetness given sudden counterpoint. There is no sweetness in The Cranes Are Flying, or if there is, its fleeting. This is a powerful and almost Shakespearean love story (I often thought of the doomed lovers of Romeo and Juliet during the film), and would be memorable if only for that. What makes the film a revelation, however, is in its execution, the sheer bravura on display in a richly cinematic experience.
The camerawork in this film is just breath-taking in its audacity. Sometimes it is breathlessly intimate, extreme close-ups with faces filling the frame, so much so you almost imagine you could feel their breath, and at others the camera lifts up and away, pulling back to reveal vast, crowd-filled scenes that spring to mind the work of Sergio Leone or David Lean. A few moments it almost pulled me out of the movie, mentally considering the difficulty in organising/rehearsing/executing such complex visual choreography. And then there are the other times, when the camera is like a thing alive, wildly kinetic and racing through scenes breathlessly, mirroring the emotional state of the character/s.
It was a similar experience to first watching Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane so many years ago- the sense of witnessing consummate film-making, bold experimentation in story-telling, Pure Cinema.
It left The Cranes Are Flying feeling very modern, here in 2020. What it must have seemed like when it first came out and in the early 1960s, I cannot really fathom, but I can imagine it seemed quite astonishing. In a sense, its a film out of time, permanently detached from when it was created: one of those films that we describe as timeless. Most films made today lack the creativity and imagination displayed in this films every frame. Maybe that’s just as well- if every film were made like this, it would be exhausting.
Even above this amazing film-making stands the intensely impressive performance of Tatiana Samoilova as Veronica, the lover left at home while her fiancé Boris (Alexi Batalov) goes off to war. Samoilova dominates the film, a performance which refuses to be overshadowed by that incredible camera. She is a dark beauty at times aloof and beguiling, at others dark and gloomy, at others a wild fury, but always she is enchanting. Something in her eyes, perhaps. In any case, its remarkable that she holds her own against all the impressive film-making at play throughout this film. I wonder what she was like in her other films.
The Cranes Are Flying is clearly one of my best discoveries of 2020; I am always heartened by making such discoveries, thinking of all those great films out there that I have not yet seen, and perhaps also a little sad realising all those great films I will never see.
So what is The Cranes Are Flying? As readers may have gathered, its a Russian film, made in the post-Stalin era in 1957, when film-makers were enjoying new creative freedom. The film is a romance, a tale of a love affair swept up in Russia’s headlong rush into war. Its well-written, with clearly defined characters and, as I have noted, breath-takingly shot. Nearly every scene is beautiful to look at, exquisitely framed. The two lovers, Veronica and Boris, are seen at the beginning of the film blissfully unaware of the doom fast approaching, and the world events that will tear them apart. After a night out together, morning has come, and as they walk the deserted streets towards home, they notice a flock of cranes flying, high in the sky, and plan another date which never comes. The framing of every shot hints at the care and attention attached to this film.
Their affair is no secret, but as if guilty of how late it is, they each furtively return to their respective family homes, and in the interactions with their family members the film perfectly establishes the various relationships and dynamics in economical fashion. War is coming, and out of patriotic duty, Boris enlists, much to his fathers horror. Veronica is perhaps last to learn.
After a remarkably-shot sequence in which Boris and his fellow recruits gather to depart, and Veronica vainly rushes past tanks and through crowds to say goodbye, the film chiefly stays with Veronica and the home-front, only briefly switching across to Boris’ sobering experiences on the front line. It is clear that Veronica and her experiences are the focus of the film, rather than those of her lover. Partly this is to maintain the mystery that Veronica feels, unable to find news regards whether Boris is alive. Two seperate air-raids devastate Veronica; the first costing her her parents, the second her personal dignity at the hands of Boris’ cousin Mark who is obsessed with claiming Veronica for himself (this a particularly expressionist sequence which is one of the most impressive of any film I have ever seen, a purely cinematic representation of almost apocalyptic sexual violence and quite horrifying). Veronica is left broken and lost and yearning for her lover, suffering the many deprivations of the civilians back home as war threatens to ruin everything and everyone.
When the end comes, its one that makes perfect sense, and totally works, even if it feels rather brutal and quite devastating. I’d vainly hoped for a positive outcome, and while the film manages to end with a life-affirming sentiment, nonetheless its quite tragic (“well, that was depressing” commented Claire as the last scene faded out). Its not the end that I imagine most viewers are hoping for, but its perfect, really, considering what has come before. One can’t just help wishing for one more scene, one final coda with a happier outcome. I wonder if The Cranes Are Flying is one of those films in which, on subsequent viewings, one always has that vain hope, in spite of the knowledge of how the film really ends, a forlorn wish that lingers against the reality. The best love stories rarely end well.