“I am always waiting”
Director Mikhail Kalatozov’s film Летят журавли [The Cranes are Flying] is a glorious piece of cinema. From the screenplay by Viktor Rozov, based on his own play, Kalatozov shows us a vision of the heroism of war and the suffering by those left at home. Granted, the film was made in 1957, but having just seen it myself, I must say how much of a breath of fresh air it is. Inundated with countless war movies showing us the front lines and the carnage, the topic itself becomes tedious and avoidable. However, this Russian gem shows how the tale of hardship can be told in a different way; by telling us, straight from a soldier’s mouth how war is hated by all, that they hope those who died did so for a cause that will allow for peace and the end of fighting, we see a new vision of WWII. We have young men volunteering to wage war for peace, to keep their families and loved ones safe at home rather than draftees fighting a battle they don’t believe in. With so much hatred towards our current situation in the Middle East, and how people are dying for no reason, against their will, it’s nice to see a film that shows just how selfless and heroic these soldiers are, as well as those awaiting their return.
Communist Russia shows how involved all were in the war. While Boris may have volunteered to go to the frontlines, his father is head doctor of a hospital aiding in the mending of soldiers injured and his sister is helping him there as well as his girl Veronika, doing all she can to keep her mind off the fact that no letter has arrived from her love. An entire city comes out to send the boys off in celebration. Even the factory that Boris and his friend Stepan work for send representatives over with gifts of gratitude. Whether this is all a glorified look into Russia at the outset of WWII or not, I don’t know. Either way, it is nice to see the pro-soldier feeling brought out by it all. There are no protests or badmouthing of these boys risking their lives for a country, it is all praise and thanks. Some in America could learn a lesson from this because whether you agree with the war at hand or not, protesting and wreaking havoc in its name only sullies what these men and women are sacrificing each and everyday. The fight is going on and will continue, maybe support is where we should focus our attention, bolstering morale rather than a selfish need to speak our minds, possibly making these soldiers second-guess what it is they enlisted for.
What I really enjoyed about the film is that it is not about the soldier—in fact, after Boris goes off to war, we see very little of him—but instead about Veronika and Russia itself. The Cranes are Flying is a love note to the nation for their hard work and dedication to the cause, telling the masses that no matter the deaths and destruction, Russia will be rebuilt, and as a result of the fighting, it will be rebuilt under a time of peace. Those who didn’t come back allowed for the safety of those that did. And this is exactly the lesson being learned by Veronika throughout. Waiting and hoping to hear from or see her boyfriend Boris, she stays true to her feelings until his cousin has his way with her—an event foreshadowed early on and all but expected. Finally broken down, she relents to marry Mark despite her repulsion towards him, marriage being a small comfort to her fear that the one she loves may never come back to her. Only later do we find out exactly how cowardly Mark has been throughout the whole war and how he orchestrates much of the tragedy that befalls the family.
The acting is top-notch throughout, but some deserve singling out. I really enjoyed Antonina Bogdanova in a small role as Boris’ grandmother. She is the one family member he can trust and her sadness at his leaving is very evident on her face and through her body language. Vasili Merkuryev, as the patriarch Fyodor Ivanovich, brings what is perhaps the best performance. As spoken at the end, about fathers needing to choke back hidden tears, Merkuryev epitomizes those sentiments. He puts on a tough exterior, especially cracking jokes and riding his son hard when he finds out about his volunteering just hours before he must leave. But when Boris exits to go to the assembly station we see the true pain of the man, seated in sorrow at the table. He loves his son dearly and although he may not be able to show it to him, his actions throughout the film express it to the audience. Aleksey Batalov is effective as Boris, a happy-go-lucky young man, and idealist, doing what he believes is right, and Aleksandr Shvorin is good as the villainous Mark, staying home due to his talented piano skills, or maybe just to steal his cousin’s love. That love, played by Tatyana Samojlova, really draws the audience in to her grief, dejection, and slim glimmer of hope. The true star of the film, she must go through many emotions on a journey where she does lose her way, needing to steer back on course, hoping that she did so soon enough for Boris’ return.
Besides the realism to the story, as well as being unafraid to use tragedy to get the theme across, I also loved the visual style of the film. Sergei Urusevsky’s cinematography is amazing, especially when considering the movie was shot in fullscreen. It is one thing to create stunning compositions in a widescreen panorama; it is completely different to do so in a square frame. Right from the beginning we get a beautiful static shot of a winding walkway along water, a bridge in the background at the top, as our two lovers skip their way up the screen and into the distance. There are multiple instances of the camera being behind barriers yet still allowing for the action to be seen, creating unique spatial depth and interest at all times. Sharp angles are utilized, as well as careful blocking to allow for overhead shots and exaggerated juxtapositions of characters in frame together.
The real feats, however, are those instances of the long shot. Used well towards the end to follow Veronika through the mass of returning soldiers, it is magnificent earlier on as she roams through those saying goodbye to their loved ones while she searches for Boris, her own farewell needing to be said. The planning for this shot must have been extensive because while she weaves in and out of people, the camera focuses on couples kisses, people yelling to one another, and more, all purposely in frame at specific moments while the camera moves through. Everyone needed to hit his mark precisely and it leads to a brilliant piece of cinema. It’s just one part of an overall masterpiece of tone and style; The Cranes are Flying shows how successful placement and mise en scène can be in showing the audience what it needs in as simple a way as possible. Composition and professionalism from the actors and crew can work wonders, adding something that huge setpieces and special effects can never do.
Летят журавли [The Cranes are Flying] 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½