THE CRANES ARE FLYING (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)

World War II breaks out, disrupting the romance between Veronika and Boris, who volunteers for military service and is sent to the front. Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letyat zhuravli, which took the top prize at Cannes, is of historical importance. Benefiting from the post-Stalin relaxation of strict imperatives in Soviet cinema, it is able to focus on its characters and their story without the usual overlay or intervention of propaganda. Unfortunately, this “story,” adapted by Viktor Rozov from his stage play, is melodramatic in the extreme. In Boris’s absence, his draft-dodging cousin, Mark, rapes Veronika and they marry, although her heart still belongs to Boris, a burst of whose heroism eventually claims his life. Could things be any sadder?
     Artistically the film benefits from Sergei Urusevsky’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography—although Joris Ivens must have been bewildered by the credit that Urusevsky received for his “pioneering” use of handheld camera. Kalatozov and Urusevsky startle us, additionally, with striking closeups from an unexpected variety of camera angles. Some scenes of Moscow’s being bombed especially grip.
     Like the girl whom Jennifer Jones plays in the American homefront picture Since You Went Away (John Cromwell, 1944), Veronika nurses the wounded and the dying. She even adopts an orphaned child. Mark, who is a composer, guiltily bangs the piano to drown out the sounds of war; but some of us hear only figurative violins. The material at the front is better, but we have seen it, or material just like it, many, many times.
     As you probably know, there are those who nevertheless take as art Kalatozov’s piece of drivel. Further, they praise to the hilt Tatyana Samojlova’s superficial performance as Veronika—perhaps because Stanislavski was her great-uncle.
     Cranes fly across the heavens, grazing the hearts of the sentimentally inclined.

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