Mikhail Kalatozov‘s Second World War-set family drama The Cranes Are Flying has been making Russian women weep since it was released in 1957. I don’t know whether it’s the old Russian lady in me or what, but I cried three times the last time I watched it. Maybe, as Maxim Shrayer ventures in Russian Review, the film “transcends its immediate historical subject,” appealing through its universal themes of love and loss to an audience beyond the Soviet generation traumatized by the war. I don’t think it’s that simple; there are lots of movies that make heartfelt overtures to those Great Themes yet fail to move me. In The Cranes Are Flying, it’s precisely the context of the war that elevates these affects, that suddenly grants to feelings of love, hate, and guilt a degree of dignity that they lack in times of peace and contentedness, where they tend rather to feel arbitrary, meaningless, and indulgent.
To illustrate this, let’s take the scene late in the film where Veronica (Tatyana Samoylova), working as a nurse in a Siberian field hospital, is unwittingly accused of treason by the patients. A convalescing young soldier begins to thrash about in his bed and curse his former sweetheart, who has found another man in his absence. The other patients take up the man’s cause as their own; there’s more at stake than his personal vanity. “Broads like that are worse than fascists. They aim straight for the heart,” a soldier says. Veronica’s father, a surgeon at the hospital, arrives to calm the men down, and—adding to Veronica’s despair—agrees with them. “Women like her deserve only our contempt,” he pronounces. This is no mere matter of petty personal feelings, but of national honor. The woman is not only dissolute, but also a traitor. The personal is political.
No discussion—however brief—of The Cranes Are Flying would be complete without mentioning Sergei Urusevsky‘s cinematography. The film is filled with shots so virtuosic in their execution and sequences so adventurous in their conception that the next few movies you see will inevitably feel routine and uninspired. When Boris (Alexei Batalov) breathlessly runs up the stairs after Veronica, the camera rises through the stairwell, staying abreast of the sprinting Boris and panning rapidly to keep him in the exact center of the frame. It’s hard to imagine how the perfection of this shot was achieved. In certain scenes, where the camera moves fluidly and totally unobstructed through dense crowds or thickly overgrown marshlands—despite the focal characters’ visible difficulty in navigating these terrains—the camera appears totally liberated. Godlike and bemused, it watches the characters as they struggle through their pathetic little obstacles. But this camera is not the monotheistic God of the Roland Emmerich-type contemporary action epic, the transcendent helicopter shot of post-human global disaster cinema, but rather a god of Greek antiquity, an immortal warrior who is in the world but not of it.