Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Target #194: Letyat zhuravli / The Cranes are Flying (1957, Mikhail Kalatozov)

TSPDT placing: #656
Directed by: Mikhail Kalatozov
Written by: Viktor Rozov (play and screenplay)
Starring: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov, Vasili Merkuryev, Aleksandr Shvorin, Svetlana Kharitonova, Konstantin Nikitin, Valentin Zubkov, Antonina Bogdanova

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

The aftermath of World War Two almost resulted in the death of Soviet cinema. In the early years of the 1950s, film production came close to a complete standstill {a mere nine feature-films were released in 1951}, and the work of all filmmakers was closely monitored, and often censored, by the government. Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, filmmakers were given greater artistic freedom with their pictures, though many remained reluctant to challenge the heroic, optimistic and propagandistic stance towards warfare that had been prevalent in previous years. It wasn't until 1957 that director Mikhail Kalatozov and writer Viktor Rozov became bold enough to produce what is widely-considered the first post-Stalin Soviet masterpiece, Letyat zhuravli / The Cranes are Flying, one of the finest depictions of war I've seen from any country or time period. Not only was the film lauded for its artistic brilliance in the Soviet Union, but international recognition was soon to follow, and Kalatozov's film was honoured with the Palm d'Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.
The Cranes are Flying is both an invigorating visual feast and an audacious, humanistic portrayal of war. Unlike many Soviet war-themed films of the time, it was less constrained by the archetypal figure of the traditional war-time hero, and more concerned with the futility, brutality and, indeed, the inevitability of conflict. Love, as a cinematic concept, is too-often idealised as a notion that somehow conquers all and endures endless hardship, and yet the reality is substantially less romantic. In the film, two lovers, Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov), separated by the advent of the WWII {widely known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War, 1941-1945}, pledge to marry after the war, but tragedy denies the couple their wish. Driven to betrayal by the unending torment and uncertainty of waiting, Veronika agrees to wed Boris' cousin, Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), a handsome but unworthy youth. The film may conclude with the proud victory of the Soviets, and a patriotic flag-waving parade, but the optimism of this sequence is overwhelmingly eclipsed by the bittersweet tragedy of our young female protagonist, who wanders soullessly through the celebrating crowds.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of The Cranes are Flying is Sergei Urusevsky's inspired and dynamic hand-held cinematography, which realistically and dizzily captures the chaos and confusion of war, not necessarily in the hail of gunfire and the cries of dying comrades {in fact, only one of the film's sequences joins Boris on the Eastern Front}, but from the perspective of the family and friends who are left behind. In one particularly impressive, oft-cited long shot, the camera follows Veronika as she frantically searches for Boris in a crowd of departing recruits and their families. The hand-held camera smoothly follows the girl off a bus, jostles through the crowd alongside her, capturing momentary snippets of loved ones saying farewell to their sons and husbands, before unexpectedly craning above the crowd as Veronika disappears into the dust of a passing squadron of army tanks, a breathtaking movement that offers scope and urgency to the dramatic episode. Urusevsky first acquired his filming experience as a military cameraman during the war, and obviously fell in love with the storytelling possibilities of handheld photography: "The camera," he once declared, "can express what the actor is unable to portray: his inner sensations. The cameraman must act with the actors."

Currently my #4 film of 1957:
1) 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)
2) The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)
3) Det Sjunde inseglet {The Seventh Seal} (Ingmar Bergman)
4) Letyat zhuravli {The Cranes are Flying} (Mikhail Kalatozov)
5) Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)

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