The Cranes Are Flying Review

A natural double-bill partner for the slightly later Ballad of a Soldier, The Cranes Are Flying has an even higher profile in the West, managing an impressive double whammy at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival in the form of the Best Film and Best Actress awards, making a major contribution to putting Soviet cinema back on the international map after the death of Eisenstein. In fact, it was one of the first postwar Soviet films to get any kind of airing outside the USSR, and domestically seems to have been a much-loved audience favourite, rather like a late 1950s equivalent of Titanic, which which it has a fair amount in common in its blend of tragic love story and large-scale historical set-pieces.

And although its profile is rather lower today (though this is more thanks to the lack of decent prints than anything else: when I booked films for repertory cinemas in the 1990s, it simply wasn’t available), it’s easy to see where its reputation comes from, as this is an immensely affecting film that for all the occasionally heavy-handed symbolism (not least the cranes of the title) connects with the audience’s emotions in a way that’s surprisingly direct given the number of Soviet war films that are rather more propagandist (indeed, there’s a somewhat startling scene early on where a carefully rehearsed patriotic recitation is brusquely interrupted by the Russian equivalent of “yeah, we know all that”). It’s also starkly honest about the realities of the era, touching on subjects like draft-dodging and the black market.

Like Ballad of a Soldier, The Cranes Are Flying focuses on the impact of the Second World War on individual participants – in this case a soldier, his fiancée, his surgeon father and his draft-dodger musician cousin. Boris and Veronica are madly in love – they almost seem to be floating on air in the opening sequences as they whirl from tryst to tryst – but their passion is interrupted both by Boris going off to do his patriotic duty and by a series of unfortunate misunderstandings that prevent them from saying goodbye to each other properly.

This is rendered doubly tragic by Boris’ untimely though not unexpected death – which we’re shown relatively early on, but which isn’t confirmed to Veronica until much later. This makes the subsequent scenes all the more poignant, as we’re all too aware of just how futile Veronica’s desperate dreams really are. She marries Mark despite her evident distaste for him (he’s a selfish adulterer and possible rapist), and once the marriage collapses, she adopts a little orphan boy who just happens to be called Boris, creating a surrogate family in place of the one we know she can never have. And in an inspired touch that intensifies the sense of tragedy, we also get to see inside Boris’ head at the moment of his death, which initially appears to be the old chestnut about one’s life flashing before one’s eyes until we realise that it’s flashing forwards as well as backwards, with dreamlike images of his wedding with Veronica intercut with and laid over the grim reality.

Technically, the film is absolutely astonishing, and not just for its era – Sergei Urusevsky’s mobile camerawork predates the invention of the Steadicam by some two decades, but you’d never know it from the way it swoops and glides from scene to scene, moving from long-shot to decidedly Wellesian neo-Expressionist low-angle close-up in the same take. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that director Mikhail Kalatozov started out in the silent era, where mastery of the technique of purely visual narration was much more necessary than it was after actors started talking.

Even more impressively, none of this virtuosity ever feels like showing off – it genuinely helps propel the narrative and underscore the emotional truth of the central situation. The extensive use of deep focus gives a wonderfully tactile quality to the settings, particularly the mud-encrusted silver birches in which Boris meets his fate, or the large-scale crowd-strewn set pieces at the beginning and end of the film. I was reminded at times of the almost three-dimensional spatial sense shown to such vivid effect in Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, and it would be surprising if Tarkovsky wasn’t familiar with The Cranes Are Flying, since he was at film school at the time of its release.

Ultimately, the first half is rather stronger than the second – most of the really memorable set-pieces (the air-raid rape, Boris’ death, Veronica’s mad dash through a burning building) happen well before the 40-minute mark, and Veronica’s pining for Boris is somewhat overstretched given that we know that he’s not coming back – there’s a somewhat heavy-handed scene in a military hospital where soldiers and surgeons alike (including Boris’ father) break into a chorus of condemnation of a woman who just happens to have committed the same “crimes” (in terms of neglecting her lover) as her, thus intensifying her sense of guilt.

But on this evidence director Mikhail Kalatozov is an unjustly neglected talent – at its best, this is a thrillingly vivid piece of cinema that can more than stand comparison with other outstanding war movies made on either side of the Iron Curtain.

In terms of print quality, this isn’t quite up to the standard set by Ruscico’s Ballad of a Soldier, but it’s still very very good – minor spots and scratches being the only noteworthy print damage, and this is more than countered by a wonderfully sharp, clear image with a massive dynamic range from deep, rich blacks to brilliant whites that still reveals plenty of highlight and shadow detail, vitally important in a film that’s very conscious of the interplay of light and shade (just look at the scene some twelve minutes in where Veronica dances in the lightbeams created by the slats in the shutters).

Even better, the quality of the transfer is well-night impeccable, with no digital artefacting to speak of (it’s rather better in this respect than Ballad of a Soldier) and an impressive amount of fine detail – frankly, if someone had told me this was a Criterion restoration job, I’d have had little trouble believing it: it’s comfortably one of the best Ruscico transfers I’ve seen to date. It’s presented at the original aspect ratio of 4:3, so anamorphic enhancement is unnecessary.

The sound is pretty much in line with what I’ve come to expect from Ruscico, being a 5.1 remix from a mono original. As usual, much of the soundtrack effectively is mono, with the surrounds and subwoofer (explosions, tank rumbles, burning buildings) coming into play during the large-scale set-pieces. The sound quality isn’t particularly good, even by 1950s recording standards (the music in particular is horribly tinny), but there’s no reason to assume that it doesn’t match the original recording. There are sixteen chapter stops.

As a package, this runs along very similar lines to Ballad of a Soldier - even the animated menus are in a near-identical sepia-toned style. In terms of extras, it offers the usual selection of stills (nine black-and-white from the film, one colour from the poster, all superbly presented and selectable via thumbnails) and filmographies (director Mikhail Kalatozov, writer Victor Rozov, cameraman Sergei Urusevsky, composer Moisey Vainberg and actors Alexei Batalov, Tatiana Samoilova, Valentin Zubkov, Alexander Shvorin, Vassily Merkuriev and Svetlana Kharitonova).

None of the filmographies contain buried trailers or any other goodies, though, as ever, there's a certain amount of entertainment to be gleaned from titles of films that we're never going to get to see round these parts - my favourites were A Willy-Nilly Chauffeur (1958), Watch Out, It's Granny (1960), Attention - A Turtle! (1970) and Diamonds for the Proletariat Dictatorship (1975), none of which are on Ruscico's release schedule. But they are doing the rather better-known Ballad of a Soldier, At Dawn It's Quiet Here, Father of the Soldier and Torpedo Bombers, and a separate section features trailers for each.

'Chronicles' consists of a seven-minute World War II propaganda short with the self-explanatory title 'November 7 1941 - The Parade in Red Square', which pretty much sums it up: lots of footage of soldiers and tanks on display for the delectation of Stalin and various lackeys with a robustly (and, under the circumstances, all too understandably) patriotic voiceover.

Rather more interesting are a couple of interviews with stars Alexei Batalov (11 mins) and Tatiana Saimolova (19 mins). The Batalov interview seems to have been recorded specifically for the DVD, and sees him revisiting the locations while talking about his experiences shooting the film and how starring in such a milestone of 20th century Soviet culture affected him afterwards. He’s also touchingly modest about his own contribution, singling out Kalatozov and Urusevsky as the real creative talents behind it (“If Kalatozov hadn’t chosen me, there would have been another boy in there, a boy exactly like me”). Intercut with clips from the film, it’s in Russian with optional English, French, Dutch, Spanish or Italian subtitles.

Contrary to the claim made on the DVD box, the Tatiana Saimolova piece has virtually nothing to say about The Cranes Are Flying, but it’s a nice little documentary nonetheless: it follows the now veteran actress as she visits the flat in which she grew up, reminiscing about events in both her life and her films (and ruing the impossibility of returning to the past, a key theme of The Cranes Are Flying), this footage being intercut with what looks like a lifetime achievement award ceremony and, bizarrely, a sequence where she consoles a distraught young woman sitting on the pavement and tells her about the importance of maintaining a good relationship with her mother. The technical quality is ropey in the extreme – it appears to have been taped off a Russian TV broadcast onto a far from virgin tape, and the digital transfer has added an extra layer of artefacting. Still, the subtitles are clear enough, offering the same languages as those accompanying the Batalov interview.

All in all, this is one of the best Ruscico discs I’ve seen to date, offering a superlative transfer and some well-chosen extras – not to mention an unjustly neglected film that has stood the test of time surprisingly well. My mother, no film buff, saw it on its original release and raved about it for decades afterwards – and now I know why.

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