The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957) is a study of three loves set in Russia as the country enters World War II. There is the love that hopes in the face of all odds – idyllic, pure, and hopeless. Then there is the love that leads to obsession and a madness that takes what is not offered. And finally, there is the love of your country that leads to the sacrifice of everything else, even your life if necessary. This haunting film, following the great tradition of the Russian cinema, uses innovative camera work and the trademark montage technique to draw the audience deep into the story. True to the propagandistic tone of Soviet films made during this time, the only love that is permissible, sustainable, and satisfying is that for Mother Russia.
Set in Russia as that country enters World War II, Veronika (Tatyana Samojilova) and Boris (Alexsey Batalov) are in love. The pair run along a street that stretches endlessly forward bathed in the bright light of an early morning sun. They jump through a child’s game of hopscotch from the previous day, run along the river, and stop to steal unobserved kisses. Their love is like the sunlight, washing out reality with its brightness. But the audience is alerted immediately, through a subtle use of foreshadowing, that this reckless, all-consuming love cannot last. Lest their passion get out of hand, Boris and Veronika – and their dreams – are doused by an early morning street-cleaning truck spraying water on the streets to wash the garbage to the river.
The lovers return to their respective homes to the news that Russia has entered the war. Without telling Veronika and his family of his intentions, Boris enlists in the army, eager to get to the front. There is no hesitation on his part; there is only the knowledge that his country needs him and that he will answer the call to serve with joy. Veronika hurries to say goodbye to him at the school yard he and the other men are leaving from, but her attempts to find him in the crowd of men and boys and the families they are leaving behind is a doomed effort.
The camera has been playing at extreme high and low angles to this point, but it is here that the camera becomes an active participant in the scene. Not content to watch Veronika’s struggle, the camera – and by extension we as the audience – are pulled into the search for Boris. We weave in and out of embraces and tears; we are jostled and push back in our frantic attempts; we catch glimpses of Boris, but cannot reach him. The sheer magnitude of the grief in this scene seems overwhelming; however, the camera draws us into the intimacy of individual heartbreak.
The mood now turns somber. Veronika’s parents are killed in an air raid and Boris’s family takes her in. The streets no longer stretch forward bright and empty. They are dark and rainy, cluttered with barricades and the debris of bombed-out buildings. Boris’s cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), who has pursued Veronika from the start, finally gives in to the madness of unrequited love. During an air raid, Veronika refuses to go to the shelter, saying she is no longer afraid of anything. Mark, an aspiring pianist, plays defiantly against the sound of falling bombs. Finally, the windows are shattered and the wind whips through the apartment unleashing the obsession and chaos that is within Mark’s heart. He advances on Veronika, and despite her repeated slaps and refusals, takes her violently.
In the gray, waterlogged forest of the frontlines, Boris keeps his spirits up thinking of Veronika and the life he will go back to. But on a reconnaissance mission, Boris is shot, and the camera breaks tradition yet again. As Boris falls backward into the bog, we are privy to his view. He sees the sun and the sky move away from him, the trees tower above him and start to spin faster and faster. Super imposed on all of this, Boris sees his wedding day with Veronika. Reminiscent of German Expressionism, this vision is decadent with slow motion, high emotion, and rich textures. All too soon, Boris is pulled back to the grim reality of the frontline and we are relegated to the position of an uninvolved viewer, unsure if he is dead or merely wounded.
Forced now to marry in shame the cousin of the man she has lost to war, Veronika slips into a mind-numbing depression, stirring with hope only when the letter-carrier comes, though never with a letter from Boris. The family has fled to the east and is working in a hospital at a refugee camp. Under the strain of not knowing whether Boris is dead or alive, the bitterness and resentment she carries for Mark, and a scathing tirade from Boris’s father on the unfaithfulness of women in the time of war, Veronika runs away into the snow to a bridge above the train tracks.
The powerful montage technique that is a trademark of early Russian cinema is used with incredibly effectiveness in this scene. Veronika’s feet pounding on the snow; the train charging down the tracks with its choking black smoke; the image of a body falling in front of the train; an abandoned child stepping off the sidewalk in front of a truck; feet stepping on the brake; Veronika running to catch the child up; wheels locked and sliding against the snow; then peace. The two figures huddle by the curb, stunned and relieved. The child’s name is Boris, and Veronika finds new purpose in the care of him.
Finally, the war ends. Mark is exposed as a draft dodger and philanderer and is thrown from the house. Veronika, and by extension we, learn that Boris is dead, a hero for Mother Russia. In the final scene of families gathered to welcome back their loved ones and celebrate their mutual survival, Veronika weeps at her loss. But this display of self-involved sentiment is quickly, gently scolded. The war has been tragic, and those who have lost their lives will never be forgotten. But it is time now to put aside the pain of yesterday and look to the future of Russia, where war and heartache will perhaps no longer be necessary. Veronika, her youthful love affair now tucked into memory, finds solace in this love for the greater good and moves with a firm step into a brighter (and politically appropriate) tomorrow.