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The Cranes are Flying

April 24, 2013

The Cranes are Flying (1957)
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Actors: Tatiana Samoilova, Aleksei Batalov, Aleksandr Shvorin

Cranes are Flying

Synopsis: Natalia (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksei Batalov) are a couple on the cusp of getting married in Moscow in 1941. The Germans invade the Soviet Union however, and Boris idealistically decides to enlist in the army. Boris heads off to war, while Natalia is left with various struggles on the homefront….

Review: This is one of the most profound and lyrical refutations of war ever made, and even more moving is that, of all places, it came from the Soviet Union – as emblem of the ‘Thaw period’ where the country was finally beginning to unpick the crippling, poisonous legacy of Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’ and where the true horrors and sacrifices of the recent Second World War could be documented and reconciled. What’s amazing about The Cranes are Flying is that a movie so sombre, has been conceived in a way that is so expressionistic and joyous. Director Mikhail Kalatozov, later to become renowned for Soy Cuba and that film’s staggering opening sequence, did a tremendous job of finding a visual energy for the story, and in some respects the camerawork comes as much a player in the narrative as the characters themselves.

The primal, boundless enthusiasm of young lovers Natalia and Boris is appropriated in the athletic opening where they play about by the Moskva River, then race up the stairs to Natalia’s apartment. In fact, there’s almost a theatrical, choreographic quality to movement in the film, as Natalia purposely veils herself from the advances of Boris’ nefarious cousin, Mark, then when Natalia dramatically races to a bridge ready to kill herself during the war, before deciding to save an abandoned baby boy instead.

To me, there are two key moments in The Cranes are Flying which testify to the film’s ingenious merging of its radical technical form to the ‘thaw’, anti-war content. The first is when Boris is killed midway through the film. Ordinarily, ‘heroes’ survive even the darkest of war movies, but not here, and it’s a radical twist from the Janet Leigh/Psycho school of storytelling that Kalatozov chooses to kill Boris so early. Add to that, Boris’ death is in no way dignified – it’s shown as a completely pointless waste of life, shot while helping a hapless colleague, and Kalatozov even accords Boris a dying vision of how life might have been with Natalia, rubbing salt in the wounds of the already tragic fact of Boris’ passing. The second scene, the key one in the film and one of my favourite scenes in the movies full-stop, is when Natalia goes to greet the returning soldiers at the end of the war. She still holds out hope that somehow Boris survived, but when she gets the final confirmation of Boris’ demise from his best friend, rather than shun the happy and fortunate families around her, she makes the profoundly graceful gesture of distributing the flowers she’d reserved for Boris to them. It’s a beautiful final image that speaks so much of Natalia’s journey to grace (unbelievably well incarnated by Tatiana Savoilova) but also acts as microcosm for a country which suffered like no other from the horrors of WW2, but finds the courage and dignity to move on. (April 2013)

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