Thursday 29 November 2012

1,001 Films: "The Cranes Are Flying" (1957)

Other countries had their war stories too, of course. In narrative terms, The Cranes Are Flying, a Mosfilm venture from 1957, plays almost exactly like the kind of flagwaver the British cinema was rolling out between 1940 and 1945, or the kind of potboiler our American cousins released over the same period - only its young lovers are named Boris and Veronika, the latter affectionately referred to as Squirrel. (Is this where Rocky and Bullwinkle got the idea from?) These two are separated when Boris signs up to go off to the front; in the absence of any news, Veronika takes up with Boris's brother Mark, and - while working in an overstretched military hospital - has to face the vilification of those who believe she's cheated on a comrade. Around this love triangle, there's a borscht-y, This Happy Brood-like portrait of a close-knit family knitting together and pulling through: the obvious focal point is Boris's bearish Uncle Fedya, rarely seen out of uniform, who - when reminded that not all the young men dashing off to sign up will return - foresees the construction of "magnificent monuments" with "lettering in gold". 

What raises the film above propaganda is the direction: Mikhail Kalatozov, the kino-eye who would go on to make I Am Cuba, uses all the tools available to a filmmaker in post-Revolutionary Russia to build on the cinema of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, stocking each scene with new reveals, effects and angles: an Expressionist declaration of love during an air raid, Veronika emerging from the mist like a latter-day Karenina, the woozy POV of a soldier shot and falling to earth. If some of these techniques have dated in the half-century since, the film remains a mighty, Scarlett O'Hara-level showcase for lead actress Tatyana Samojlova, an actress with the face of Audrey Hepburn and the body of a battleship - as well she might have needed here, having to scurry between tanks and through burning buildings in pursuit of the man she loves.

The Cranes Are Flying is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.

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