Sunday 20 May 2007

The Cranes are Flying (1957)

Director: Mikheil Kalatozishvili
Star: Tatyana Samojlova

I've downloaded a lot of the Russian silent movies that were so important to the cinema of the time and have now entered the public domain. There are a lot of names, different filmmakers contributing to the body of work of a much larger movement. Yet when looking at anything from the sound era, it seems to be Eisenstein, Eisenstein and more Eisenstein, when he was allowed to make films, and then later some Tarkovsky. There just had to be someone else in there making movies. Well in 1957 Stalin had been dead for four years and Khruschchev was a little more open to the idea of film. After all in Russia, writing was always treated as the greatest art, or perhaps classical music. Film was always a second or third class citizen, even with some of the great names of the silent era working out of Russia.

Here is the film that changed so much of that, making it possible to be a filmmaker and an artist and all the rest of it. Director Mikheil Kaltozishvili and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky had been paying attention to everything that had gone before them, especially from Germany, and while the story was establishing itself, I was enjoying the camera positions, motions and angles and the shafts of light. It turns out that Kalotozishvili directed 21 films and this was the 18th, so he'd persevered throughout the years when it was difficult to do so.

Boris and Veronica are very much in love, which is completely obvious, but World War II is just around the corner. He volunteers and is sent to the Russian front, hardly the safest place for a soldier at the begin of the Second World War, leaving his little Squirrel behind. I loved the scene, as short as it was, when she tried to get to see him before he left, fighting through crowds and playing live action Frogger to get through the tanks to cross the road. The crowd scenes are just wonderful, as the camera pans slowly through a mass of people, following one but showing us many stories on the way.

Tatyana Samojlova is great as Veronica. She's no great beauty but she has an innocence and a charm that reminds me of Audrey Hepburn with more than a hint of Bjork. She's certainly the life in this film, even when she's not the focus, which she is for much of the time. She's expressive enough to carry scenes when the soundtrack disappears for effect to highlight the silence. Sound is very important here and she has the looks to complement startling scenes like the one where Boris's cousin Mark, looking after her in his absence, tries to drown out an air raid with his piano playing, unsuccessfully of course.

Also of course, Boris doesn't last forever on the Russian front to be able to come to his beloved Squirrel. By this point she's married Mark, after being badgered into it by his persistence, but is still waiting for that letter that wouldn't ever come. She knows Boris is missing but won't give up hope, and she changes notably as the film progresses and her guilt kicks in. She gets some more incredible scenes as that guilt is hammered home much later on and she chooses to commit suicide but fails spectacularly by being distracted into saving a young child's life, a young child coincidentally called Boris.

This film reminded me of Howard Hawks's famous definition of a good film as having three great scenes and no bad ones. There are no bad scenes here in the slightest but there a whole slew of great ones, especially those in crowds where Sergei Urusevsky's hand held camerawork is almost beyond compare. The story courtesy of Viktor Rozov, who adapted his own play, is massively touching, but the cast and crew tell it so well. It sweeps through the whole of the Second World War, from start to finish, and ends with a powerful message to boot. Astounding cinema.

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