“Give me something I will always remember.”
If you are in the mood for Soviet cinema, then go grab a copy of the 1957 film The Cranes are Flying (Letyat Zhuravli). It really doesn’t get much better than this eloquent touching film from director Mikhail Kalatozov. The story focuses on the impact of war on two young lovers, Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov).
The film begins with the lovers enjoying the last moments of the afternoon together as they walk beside the banks of a river. As is typical with lovers, Boris and Veronika focus on the wonder of being in each other’s company, but they also find joy in nature–cranes flying overhead in a v-shaped formation. They part, eagerly counting the moments until the next encounter, and Boris heads off to his night-shift job at the local factory while Veronika dashes home.
From this point, things begin to go downhill for Veronika. Boris has secretly enlisted in the army with his friend, Stepan (Valentin Zubkov). Like many young men who respond to the call for volunteers, Boris doesn’t want to ‘miss’ the opportunity. He imagines that he will leave some time in the misty future, and so both he and Veronika are stunned when Germany invades and the volunteers are ordered to report for duty the next day.
The next day is Veronika’s birthday and she’s still reeling from the news that Boris enlisted without telling her. Feeling hurt and betrayed, she refuses to spend Boris’s last evening with him, but Boris leaves her a birthday present to be delivered after he leaves. Boris tells his family, his physician father Fyodor (Vasili Merkuryev), his practical sister, Irina (Svetlana Kharitonova) and his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) to take care of Veronika if she should need help.
At this point, the film enters some sentimental territory which is ameliorated by some ambiguities in the plot. While this is a wonderful film and can easily be judged on its own merit, it’s interesting to note some of the subtle undercurrents in the film’s dialogue. Boris’s father, Fyodor is the film’s moral centre, and he’s distressed when his son volunteers. The scene involving the factory workers’ send-off to Boris includes a speech that would have been unacceptable a few years before. Two young girls from the factory arrive at Boris’s home to give him the hero’s send off, but their speech is preempted by Fyodor who announces for them: “and we at the plant will meet and exceed our production quotas.” The two young, eager girls are flummoxed by Fyodor’s behaviour. He’s taken the wind out of their sails, but Fyodor is too generous a human being to continue making fun of the girls’ mission, and Boris’s last evening is spent in celebration.
In another scene, Fyodor, a widely respected physician is approached by a slimy party member who wants to use the ambulance for his own sleazy purposes. The man completely mis-understands Fyodor and thinks he’s corrupted (and corruptible). The film subtly notes the man’s shift in tone and body langauge when he realizes that the doctor isn’t just another corrupt human being after all.
The Cranes are Flying is an incredibly touching film which also explores the issue of the loyalty of Soviet women while their men served at the front. The themes of grief and patriotism are overwhelmed in the film’s superb finale which takes place at the train station. The key, of course, is forgiveness; I won’t give too much away here, but bottom line, this is an exquisite film.
The film’s director Mikhail Kalatozov and the cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky also made the stunningly beautiful film I am Cuba in 1964. Urusevsky’s skill with the camera is apparent in the very first scene of The Cranes are Flying, and he shoots the same location several times throughout the film. In this fashion, the landscape becomes a sort of character as events take their toll not just on the people but on the country too. Another scene takes place at Fyodor’s home and one shot takes in the entire family as they all sit around the table. The camera’s placement effectively makes us the invisible guest at the table, and indeed this sort of intimate mood is present throughout the film.