Ranking: #15/111

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov (Georgia/Soviet)  

Genre: War Drama

At the height of his powers, Georgian-born Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov made three timeless cinematic works of art in the space of only seven years: The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Letter Never Sent (1959) and I am Cuba (1964). This achievement on its own makes him one of the greatest filmmakers. On top of this, he made the stunning 1930 poetic documentary film Salt for Svanetia, with its powerful, almost primordial, imagery.

The Cranes Are Flying gives a unique Russian perspective on World War 2 (known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War), while moving far beyond the ideals of the Soviet school of Socialist Realism to venture into a poetic form of cinema which paved the way for the mystical and abstract style of Andrei Tarkovsky. Kalatozov once stated: “I believe in poetic cinema”. Without the example of Kalatozov’s poetic realism to draw on, would Tarkovsky’s daring stylistic innovations even have been possible? Either way, the colossal achievements of Kalatozov in the late 1950s and early 1960s form an aesthetic bridge from the old Soviet school of film, exemplified by the works of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko, to the next generation of Russian filmmakers like Tarkovsky, Sokurov and Andrey Konchalovskiy.

In addition, Kalatozov’s films show a powerful spatial awareness similar to the way Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni creates a strong sense of his characters being part of the film space he creates through sensitive and fluid camera work. While Antonioni creates existential, urban landscapes in which characters tend to be alienated, Kalatozov seems to have a much more sympathetic, and humanist camera, often creating an emotive, or emotionally charged, atmosphere. He believed that the art of cinema should touch the human soul and penetrate to the essence of a scene or shot. His camera is not just an objective eye impassively viewing reality.

Given the technical brilliance, emotional power and the thematic depth of his major films, as well as his place in film history, I regard Kalatozov as a giant of world cinema.

It is early one morning in the summer of 1941 in Moscow and Veronika and her boyfriend Boris watch cranes flying over the city. It is a beautiful moment of innocence and love shared between the young couple. The cinematography is highly creative throughout this film, with participatory camera work reminiscent of Kubrick’s mobile, involved camera in his early war drama Paths of Glory.

Within hours, though, this picture of insouciance is shattered with the news that Germany has invaded Russia and war has broken out. Soon, Boris volunteers for the army and he is gone from her life, just like that.

Then Veronika’s home apartment is blown up in an air raid attack. Her parents are killed. The grandfather clock is left standing among the ruins, but then stops. The message is that war changes everything and the pre-war world has gone forever.

Now homeless, Veronika is invited to stay with Boris’s family. Mark, the cousin of Boris, falls in love with her, but she rebuffs him. Later, during an air raid, she refuses to sleep with him and he then rapes her. The violence of war and sexual violence seem to get intermingled during this sequence. War is like rape, and rape is like an act of war….

Later, though, they do become a couple and marry. Their union, though, is doomed. She feels doubly guilty, for marrying a man who stayed behind and didn’t go to war and for betraying Boris. It later transpires that Mark gave a bribe to get exemption from military service.

The film examines the terrible kinds of guilt which can be experienced during war.

On the front, Boris is shot during a dangerous reconnaissance mission, after saving his colleague, Volodya. His final moments are powerfully filmed as he imagines getting married to Veronika.  So often, Kalatozov is able to convey what is happening inside his character’s state of mind. This helps to humanise his characters and to create an emotional mood.

Escaping the advancing German army, the family relocates to Siberia, where Veronika works as a nurse in a military hospital. It is run by Boris’s father, Fyodor, who later finds out about Mark’s act of fraud to avoid military service.

The film presents a sensitive and convincing portrayal of the grief of losing a beloved during war, mixed in with different kinds of guilt. At one point, Veronika, no longer able to live with herself, thinks about throwing herself in front of a train. However, just before she does so, she sees a boy about to be hit by a car and rescues him. He has been separated from his parents, another victim of the chaos of war. She takes him home to look after him. Symbolically, the boy’s name is Boris. This is going to be her act of doing good to redeem herself. The boy becomes part of their family.

After the war, Volodya visits Veronika when she is back in Moscow. They stroll next to a river and the scene is reminiscent of the film’s opening scene. Veronika has not yet accepted that Boris is dead and she goes to the station to meet the soldiers returning from his unit, carrying a large bouquet of flowers. When Boris doesn’t appear, she receives the confirmation she has needed that he really is dead. Something hits her soul hard but then gives her closure. Her heart opens again and she begins giving flowers to grieving family members whose loved ones never returned. Then, she looks up into the sky and sees that the cranes are flying again.

Life can finally start again for the walking wounded of the generation which has just lived through the Great Patriotic War.