Monday, March 5, 2012

The Cranes are Flying (1957) - Mikhail Kalatozov

Tatyana Samojlova as Veronica.
Veronica and Boris are madly in love, as happy as two young people can be. But it is the eve of World War II, and already the Russian capital feels the effects. Boris, who can likely avoid the draft because of his talent as an artist, is caught up in the fervor. Out of duty, he volunteers to serve in the army as the German forces approach Moscow. Their planned marriage interrupted, Veronica and Boris are caught up in the horror of war. Can their love sustain them?

One of the most powerful anti-war films ever made, The Cranes are Flying has universal appeal. The first Russian film to capture the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or, it was one of the first Russian films cleared for production after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Russia, of course, suffered an estimated 25 million casualties during the global conflict, by far the most of any nation, so director Kalatozov and the Russian film industry had plenty of harrowing experience to draw upon.

For anyone not inclined to give foreign films a chance, this is a good place to start. You are likely to change your mind. Wonderfully directed, it has superb black & white cinematography, fine pacing, a beautiful star, and a story sure to touch any viewer.    

It starts with a sweet scene, two young lovers, euphorically skipping hand-in-hand along the river bank. Veronica (Tatyana Samojlova) radiates happiness. She is beautiful, and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) is tall and handsome. It is morning--they've been out all night. He affectionately calls her "squirrel," and because it is time for him to go to work in the factory, they plan their next rendezvous as he escorts her home. She tip-toes up the stairs so as not to wake her parents. In a nice moment, the camera pans to old couple in bed and we see a conversation every parent has at one time or another, worrying about their children. They hear their daughter's footsteps but pretend to sleep. The mother whispers, "She is crazy about him." "And he about her," the father replies.

The idyllic interlude is brief. Boris secretly plans on joining the army but holds off telling Veronica--he hasn't gotten his notice and next week is her birthday. It comes soon enough in the most moving "going off to war" sequence I have ever seen, beautifully acted and directed.

As Veronica is having fun contemplating their wedding, Boris' friend, Stepan, arrives with the exciting news. She is stunned; Boris must leave that afternoon. With no time to spare, they part having said little, but she promises to meet him later at his house for a quick celebratory lunch with his family. Like Veronica, Boris' father is stunned by the unexpected news, furious that his son has joined the army. It's not said, but the impression left by his reaction suggests the father knows well the horror of war from his own youth, perhaps during the Russian revolution. In any event, fearful that his son has put himself in harm's way, he is proud and must reluctantly accept the decision.

Delayed by traffic, Veronica arrives too late to join in cake and a toast. At the station, Boris scans the crowd, desperately looking for her, wondering now if she is so angry at him that she chose not to come. There is a crush of people saying goodbye to the young men, who are filled with illusions of great adventure, not thinking of the danger ahead. The camera pans the many faces of family members left behind, some happy and proud, but most with tears of worry and dread. It is a powerful scene.

Veronica arrives and forces her way through the crowd, finally catching a glimpse of Boris as he marches to the train. It is loud, martial music plays, the crowd cheers. She calls out but Boris doesn't see or hear her. Hurt and confused, his head is down, his eyes vacant. He looks dazed and disappointed. She tries to toss him some cookies wrapped in a package that she has brought as a gift, but they fall to the pavement beneath the feet of the volunteers. Boris leaves without knowing if Veronica still loves him. The emotional scene compels the viewer to feel his pain and anguish.

In turn, Veronica will be left wondering too. Boris has left her a present, a stuffed toy animal squirrel. He has hidden a note within the basket the animal holds, buried beneath some nuts. She doesn't see it, and won't find it until much later in the film. The hidden note is an interesting plot device that serves to balance the two characters and elicit our empathy for both. 

This entire sequence is highly effective, immensely sad and heart-rending; and perhaps at the time, highly surprising to American audiences, who must have assumed that Russia was a country of only unfeeling, godforsaken communists. But its new leader, Khrushchev, was keen on distancing himself from Stalin, and had granted film-makers new freedom in their art. Kalatozov took advantage of the opportunity and eschewed the usual propaganda produced by previous Russian directors.

As shot, the scene could have depicted any people from any nation that sends its young men off to war--fathers have to fight back tears and mothers and sweethearts are overcome with emotion. The message you take is simple: all wars rip apart a community like no other experience. It doesn't matter if they are American, Chinese, Russian, or anything else. Government leaders lead their nations to war, and common civilians bear the heaviest burden.   

(Note: spoilers follow)

To emphasize the fact that the world is changing, Kalatozov has already shown the audience that Moscow is readying for war: Boris digging defensive trenches, Veronica and Boris hanging blackout curtains, iron defenses aligned along the river downtown. When the German bombs begin to rain down, the populace head for the subway. In one such attack, Veronica emerges to find  her apartment building leveled, both parents killed. In a well-designed scene, she rushes up the open stairway amidst fire and smoke. It looks quite dangerous. Boris' father takes her in, telling Boris' cousin, Mark, that they have to protect her.

Veronica now waits for a letter from Boris that doesn't come, either because he hasn't time to write or because communication lines are disrupted--we never know. She grows increasingly depressed. Another bombing attack finds her and Mark together at Boris' family apartment. Mark, a musician who we later learned has avoided the draft by bribing an official to secure an exemption, has long harbored his own desire for Veronica. During the commotion of the bombing, he rapes her. Confused, feeling disgraced, and not knowing Boris' fate or feelings, she makes a regretful decision, and reluctantly consents to marry the scoundrel.

The focus shifts briefly to Boris on a reconnaissance mission traveling through the miserable landscape. Mud rises above his ankles. Gunfire from the enemy breaks the silence. He never forgets Veronica and carries her photograph close to his heart. His death comes quietly. He falls, spinning to the wet ground with his last thoughts of her as in a dream, imagining their wedding.

Boris helps another soldier.
In the meantime, Veronica continues to wait for a letter. She now works as a nurse in a hospital with Boris' father, a doctor. The separation is hard on her. One woman describes her as a ghost. 

The actor who plays Boris' father gives a strong performance. When Mark and Veronica announce they are going to marry, he sits silent, stirring his coffee, but his face lets you know he is furious. This is a betrayal of his son. As far as we know, she never reveals to him the circumstances of the rape, so his anger is understandable. Still, from here, he feels conflicted about Veronica. In a moment that hits too close to home, she overhears his harsh comments when a wounded soldier creates a loud commotion. The boy is upset, having been informed that his own girl friend has married someone else, a civilian. To rally the boy's spirit, the doctor argues that such a girl is contemptible, saying she married a coward who sits out the war at home, letting others protect him. Full of self-loathing and distraught, Veronica runs out. The doctor suddenly realizes the effect his words have had on the poor girl and is ashamed. It was an honest speech, but not one he meant for her. The pain on his face reveals he is sick at heart. Thankfully, he later gets a chance to apologize, saying only someone without a heart could reproach her.

But for now, Veronica contemplates suicide. The need to intervene to save a young child from being run over in traffic, jolts her out of her funk and gives her a new purpose. Coincidentally, the boy's name is Boris. She takes him in as if she were his own mother. 

Veronica eventually finds the note from Boris in another dramatic scene. She reads the contents, and in a voice-over we hear Boris explain his decision and profess to her his undying love. Her faith renewed, she continues to hold out hope he will return, even when another soldier later tells her he was killed in action. The film ends with the soldiers coming home as victors to a jubilant city, the war over. Stepan is among the veterans and confirms Boris' death. He then gives a stirring speech of hope to the crowd. Symbolically, cranes fly over the city as the music swells (an image seen in the opening moments of the film) and Boris' father leads Veronica away.

Boris and Veronica admire the cranes. 

Besides its moving message, the film is technically magnificent. The director makes judicious use of hand-held cameras to convey the terror of the battlefield and moments of panic, and selective closeups of Veronica at key moments. Always her face is perfectly lit and expressive.

Tatyana Samojlova is tremendous in the role as the heroine, and it would be tough for anyone to fault her character's decision to marry the reprehensible Mark. We can't help but feel compassion for the girl. As the father-in-law says at one point, she has been through a terrible ordeal. Just 23 at the time of filming, it is quite a performance from one so young, and only her second film. Compare it to Julia Christie's performance in a somewhat similarly themed film, Dr. Zhivago, and it is even more impressive.

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