Home Video Hovel: The Cranes Are Flying, by David Bax
When you think of the dominant aesthetic of the Soviet Union, whether it be film, art from the Russian avant-garde and from socialist realists or even propaganda posters, you probably conjure up sharp lines, severe angles and figures in three-quarter profile. It’s there in the crew and the guns of the Battleship Potemkin and, over 30 years later, it’s there in Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, out now on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. While the 1957 film deals–at least ostensibly–with more personal emotions and struggles then the collectives one of the 1925 film, we still see the same vision of the world, where bridges (or their shadows) bisect space diagonally and where, indeed, the cranes fly, the acute angles they form in the sky gazed upon by the upturned faces of the good Russians below.
Veronika (Tatyana Samoylova) is in love with Boris (Aleksey Batalov), a young working man from her neighborhood. And he loves her back. But, being a duteous male citizen in fighting trim, he volunteers to join the army at the outset of World War II. At home, Veronika suffers numerous hardships of her own and, not having heard from Boris in months, finds herself (not entirely willingly) married to her lover’s caddish cousin, Mark (Aleskandr Shvorin), who received an exemption from military service.
The Cranes Are Flying is as much tragedy as romance and Kalatozov’s visual approach reflects that dichotomy. Soft, warm light and cold, hard shadows intermingle but the latter always threatens to win out; matters of the heart are subjugated to remorseless reality. These clashes play out within cinematographer Sergey Urusevskiy’s frames but the same battles also rage behind Veronika’s eyes. Samoylova’s expressive face is the film’s greatest tool, demanding your attention even among Kalatozov’s multiple, well-choreographed crowd scenes.
We see glimpses of Boris after his deployment but Kalatozov saves the most disquieting glimpses of the war for the homefront where, while Veronika longs for the past, the harsh present sweeps forward in cold blood. Apartment building are reduced to rubble in the space of a single, fluid cut while sandbags and Czech hedgehog barricades seem almost to materialize out of thin air around the city. The Cranes Are Flying depicts war as something brutish and inhuman but, in true Soviet fashion, resolves that the suffering of Boris and Veronika alike are noble and worthwhile sacrifices.
Criterion’s Blu-ray comes from a 2K transfer of the original camera negative undertaken by Mosfilm, the federal film studio that produced The Cranes Are Flying along with most of the other notable Russian films of the last 100 years. Making a case for government funding of the arts, the result is impeccable. Clean, sharp, stable and textured, it feels like this must have been what it looked like 63 years ago. The mono Russian was also restored by Mosfilm and sounds great.
Special features include a new interview with film scholar Ian Christie; a 1961 audio interview with Kalatozov; a 2009 documentary on Kalatozov; a 2008 featurette on the cinematography; a 2001 interview with Claude Lelouch about the film; and an essay by Chris Fujiwara.