Blu-ray Review: The Cranes Are Flying | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, June 4th, 2020  

The Cranes Are Flying

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Apr 09, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The Cranes Are Flying, the 1957 Russian war film from director Mikhail Kalatozov, may appear overly familiar on the basis of its surface-level plot but is ultimately the very best of its kind.

As World War 2 expands, Boris (Aleksey Batalov) and Veronika (Tatyana Samoylova) continue their courtship, staying out all night cooing at one another and playfully teasing one another as though they have no cares or worries in the world. Veronika has eyes on a wedding, but Boris – pulling long shifts at the factory – has secretly volunteered to join the fight. On short notice, he’s given his marching orders, and he’s off to the front leaving his family and his beloved behind.

It’s clear from the moment Boris packs his bags and heads to the station that this is, at the very least, not going to have an easily achieved happy ending. He has to leave home before Veronika can arrive to see him off. As angry as she is at him for what she perceives as abandonment, it’s doubly painful when she realizes he’s already gone when she does show up at the door. The following sequence of Boris waiting, anxiously scanning the crowd for her and Veronika subsequently racing through the massive crowd doing the same packs in the emotional stakes for these two. Veronika doesn’t catch him, and he’s off while she’s left with a stuffed squirrel (a reference to her nickname) Boris left as a birthday gift. However, it appears that he forgot to include a note that he said he was leaving with it. Boris is off to potential doom without ever truly having that final moment with the love of his life.

Young love broken up by war is a well-worn theme throughout narrative storytelling to the point that it can easily drift into cliché at this point. With that vague description, you can almost see the hero’s journey play out in step-by-step fashion to a logical conclusion. Happy: the young lovers are reunited after their traumatic separation. Unhappy: tragedy strikes and one or both are left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of conflict.

Sergey Urusevskiy’s black-and-white cinematography (a frequent collaborator of Kalatozov’s) imbues the melodrama with a sense of terror necessary considering the setting. Veronika’s entire life is placed into upheaval as her own family is splintered by the bombings in Moscow. This is all captured with sharp angles and smart use of shadows. The camera is rarely still, and it helps instill a sense of panic and uncertainty, particularly as Boris’ cousin Mark rapes her and ultimately shames her into marriage – which the family interprets as her having abandoned Boris either in retaliation or due to her love being false from the beginning.

But it’s a sequence involving Boris and a churlish, young, harmonica-playing soldier on a reconnaissance mission that showcases the most striking visual flair and is one of the best examples of accessing a character’s memories and fantasies ever committed to film (a bold statement, sure, but it’s true!). The camera spins around Boris during a moment of utmost duress and images of him running up a spiral staircase to visit Veronika as well as their wedding (what might have been) are superimposed over the grief he’s experiencing in reality.

However, The Cranes Are Flying is mostly Veronika’s story as she escapes the bombings in Moscow alongside Boris’ family – bitter though they are about her perceived slight of their son – to a small community where they tend to wounded soldiers returning from the front and she’s left looking and longing.

The film also does a fine job resisting the idea of accidentally lionizing the nobility of nationalistic pride and wartime duty. Boris succumbs to this notion, but it’s less a misplaced ideological calling and more of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. The way he sees it, there is no real choice to be made. In the end, there is no honor or dignity in war even if fighting is deemed necessary, and Kalatozov and writer Viktor Rozov keenly understand this dilemma and how to articulate it in a compelling yet bleak manner.

Kalatozov’s Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece The Cranes Are Flying has received the Blu-Ray upgrade it so desperately deserves. With a new subtitle translation to go along with a crisper transfer, this is a must-own for any budding cinephile, particularly as Kalatozov may not be the household name of some of the other high-profile filmmakers in the collection. It also includes an essay by film critic Chris Fujiwara about the film and the state of Russian cinema at the time following Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 and a new interview with scholar Ian Christie about why it’s a landmark of the era in Soviet filmmaking.  It is absolutely worth the upgrade if you’re clinging to the old DVD, too. 



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