If you are a cinephile, it is a fair guess that you have seen your share of war-time romances, one of the stodgiest of all film sub-genres. But that does not mean you have a Soviet war-time romance, nor have you seen a Mikhail Kalatozov war-time romance. Kalatozov is one of the masters of world cinema (his later Yo Soy Cuba is both a passionate ode to a lifestyle and a perplexing, dumbfoundingly beautiful exercise in pushing the heights of camerawork to impossible achievements). He is not nearly as well known today as he ought to be (but the same can be said of all post-Eisenstein Soviet cinema, excepting Tarkovsky), largely because political lines in the sand were well entrenched by the time Cranes was made. He was bound to the lingering death of existing in a world with more interest in denouncing art than expressing it. At least Cannes got it right, putting political qualms aside and awarding The Cranes are Flying the Palme d’Or for its luminous artistic achievement, transcendent performances and craft, and its stunning ode to love and loss in a world that no longer knew the meaning of the former term.
If the world wasn’t always ready to acknowledge Kalatozov’s art, or Soviet art at all, Kalatozov certainly was, salvaging the memories of decades of Soviet cinema and scrapping Eisenstein and the like for parts without forgetting the heyday of European and Japanese cinema flooding the world in the 1950s. The Cranes are Flying is many things, but it is first and foremost a study in worldly styles assembled into a uniquely timeless, international whole. The classical Hollywood melodrama of sweltering romance, the Japanese diorama camera set-ups that emphasize people as they exist in relation to another, the humid, glorious middle-European silent cinema close-ups on heaving facial features straight out of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the Italian neo-realist grit and scrappy focus on everyday, mundane spaces and utilitarian human activity.
All coexist in Kalatozov’s film, and all join hands in love with a quintessentially Soviet focus on community (not the meditative, quiet Japanese community of Ozu, but the kinetic, ever-moving community of action and work found so frequently in old Soviet cinema). A focus which makes The Cranes are Flying a potent showpiece of weary, worldly cinema and a canvas for a studied, literate filmmaker exploring cinema as a living, dialectic, communicative art of relationships and conversations between identities and national art forms.
A fact that is no surprise considering both Kalatozov’s history and the film’s subject matter. On Kalatozov: the director was ever-internationally minded, working on Soviet productions in harmony with nations like Cuba and Italy, and spending a great deal of time in the US working at a Soviet consulate and experiencing Western cinema. On the subject matter: WWII is the name of the game, filtered through the intimate portrait of a romance ended before it could really begin. When WWII breaks out, in this film written by Viktor Rozov (adapting from his own play) Boris (Aleksey Batalov), who lives with his father Fyodor (Vasili Merkuryez), his mother Irina (Svetlana Kharitonova), and his nephew Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), volunteers to fight the German blitzkrieg careening into Russia. Volunteers to the dismay of his girlfriend Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova), mind you, and when he dies and is listed as missing in action, Veronika must cope with the unknown fact of her love life’s existence, her burgeoning relationship with his family, and her ever-changing existence in an increasingly small world tearing apart at the seams in its ultimate conflict.
The Cranes are Flying is notable thematically for its unrepressed evocation of female agency and passion; Veronika is frequently displayed on the move, both emotionally and physically around a camera that is frequently caught chasing her with abandon through the tumult and pandemonium of modern Russian life. It is, ultimately, a film about people understanding a world that is impossible to understand, and a woman who doggedly persists to hope and find hope in a world that has little interest in her or in hope. Kalatozov pines for her, casting her in an empathetic, tortured light, and he gushes for her impossibly beautiful features. Features which are worked as a window into a soul by Tatiana Samoilova’s expressive eyes and frazzled face. A face that shakes when it needs to, shouts when it needs to, and, above all, stagnates when it needs to. It recalls the great silent female performances, from Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box to Renée Jean Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc in its innocence, in its pain, and in its willful and possibly foolish, but altogether human, persistence in the face of agony and abuse. Compared to a close-up on her face, a superior window into the core of humanity, and especially life as a female, could not be imagined.
It must be said, however, that of everything The Cranes are Flying accomplishes as sublime human drama and psychological exploration of a person, a nation, and the trauma of a world, all pale in comparison to Sergey Urusevsky’s awe-inspiring, monumental cinematography. Urusevsky, who would hone his already towering craft even further with Yo Soy Cuba, a film that literally redefines camera movement and begs the mind to wonder whether the camera was a sentient being after all, could not possibly display a better expression of pure craft with Cranes. The obvious standout is his moving camera, which wrecks havoc on the state of the world and lacerates the characters with a perfection of form married to subject and theme that would match Eisenstein himself (if he made a film with FW Murnau, back when Karl Freund was unchaining the camera for the first time in cinema).
The camera here doesn’t just move though. It torrents down the streets, both prodding Veronika and chasing her down in the tempest of her unleashed internal chaos, passing through crowds and machines and locations like playthings in the toybox of modern Soviet life. Like Soviet socialism, the camera is ever fascinated with crowds (of people to signify the collective human identity of the nation) and of machines and transport (to convey the focus on modernist work and mechanical artifacts to create a functioning, modern utopia of sorts). Urusevsky, under Kalatozov’s guidance, finds harmony and disharmony between the power of the Soviet machine unleashed in the prime of its kinetic collectivity, on one hand, and the destructive impulses of a nation collectivized only at patchwork, contorted angles hewn roughly together and not fully meeting one another as a unified whole. It is a film about rough angles barely assembled into a temperamental hole.
The cinematography finds the double-edged sword between all that was vital and alive about Soviet community and all that was repressive about it, showing how Veronika can be both bolstered by the crowds and surrounded and engulfed by them. It is positively sublime, triumphant camerawork, nothing less than the pinnacle of Soviet style filmmaking, trumpeted by silent masters like Eisenstein and Vertov and designed for the purpose of showcasing the powers of Soviet cinema, but more importantly for showcasing how Soviet cinema was and could only ever be Soviet cinema. The camera and the editing were tools to display Soviet life as fundamentally and organizationally communal and different from Western life, to cut between people in unison and explore their interconnections with each other under a socialist society. Kalatozov evokes the vigor of this Soviet technique and Soviet community, championing and expanding it, while also questioning what happens when collectivism tips into chaos. Which ultimately makes Cranes a defiantly Soviet film, an exploration of life as community and a rejection of the individualist bent of Western cinema, as well as a throbbing question mark about Soviet life. It becomes a visual study in what modern Soviet life entailed in all its facets.
It becomes more though. Urusevsky gives us not only his unchained camera, but some of the finest lighting work ever featured in a film, evoking the hard chiaroscuro of film noir and the misshapen, deformed angles of German Expressionism. A sequence set during a thunderstorm, with a piano blaring like a shrieking madness into the night, may be the most expressionist sequence in all of cinema since the heyday of the 1920s; canted angles, punishingly animalistic sound effects (the film has some of most expressive sound in any film), a ravaged display of close-ups intermingling with wide shots, a set design that positively cuts right into the characters, and editing that finds the soul and identity of falling into a world that had become unknowable. All come together to evoke the themes of loss, alienation, modernity, and identity like nobody’s business. Silent-film style superimposition also plays a sublime role in an ethereal, caterwauling, ghostly nightmare of a scene. By putting images on top of one another, the film conveys the dissolution of the sanity of space and linear time, with identities and events literally weighing down on each other.
Combined with the film’s gloomy, penetrating and impenetrable shadow-play throughout to bathe the characters in darkness that destroys their inner individuality, you have one of the most gorgeous, monumentally well-crafted motion pictures in history. But what is so amazing is that none of this is showy in the traditional sense. It is showy, I suppose, but none of the craft exists for its own sake. The film is an orgy of shots that could be framed individually and linkages between shots that find the spirit of Soviet style montage alive and evolved (again, if Kalatozov was knowledgeable of world cinema, he was a uniquely Soviet director, probably the most Soviet director of the sound era, as Tarkovsky’s cinema has little to do with the Soviet cinema of the past). But none of this film is merely beautiful for the sake of beauty. Every image, every edit, is a means to greater insight into a national cinema, a culture, a period of time in the world, a woman’s soul, and female life in the modern era. Few films match The Cranes are Flying for thematic depth, but fewer still attain that thematic depth through such gushingly cinematic means (a Soviet specialty).
When Veronika announces “the war is over” at the end of the film, Kalatozov and Urusevsky cheekily position her in front of a body of water with long, pointed boats passing through her and slicing into her head. In this moment, maybe more than any other moment in cinema, humanity dies a little, and there may be no way to make it better. Until moments later, when Kalatozov, proving that the Russians were never miserabilists at the cinema, gives us one of the great final winks of hope in film. I wouldn’t dare spoil it. I will simply say that, in the end, the film comes to the aid of Soviet cinema, and demonstrates belief in Soviet society, with a powerful visual summation of community and collectivism in film and in the real world as a balm of hope that could alleviate any wound.