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THE CRANES ARE FLYING

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tatiana Samoilova, Alexei Batalov, Vasily Merkuryev, Alexander Shvorin
Director:  Mikhail Kalatozov
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  None
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date;  April 30, 2002

“She’s worth fighting for.”

Film ****

The Cranes are Flying is a flawless mixture of technical audacity and emotional purity…the kind of film Russia has been specializing in since the days of the silent era.  The boldness in camerawork exists only to capture and heighten the spirits of the various moments.  If they venture a little too close to melodrama, they can be forgiven…sometimes, heart can be too big to contain within the confines of an aperture.

Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov and superbly filmed by Sergei Urusevsky, Cranes is one of a remarkable string of post-Stalinist pictures that came out of the Soviet Union depicting war and its heartaches more truthfully than had been allowed in that country for far too long.  Like many films of the period, it deals with World War II, but not in a broad, sweeping, pro-military stance.  It focuses on a pair of very real and true characters, who might have lived happily ever after, if not for the outbreak of war.

To describe the film is to discuss not only the key story elements, but the incredible cinematic technique that brings each one to the screen.  Because of that, I’ll have to forgo some of the most remarkable technical detail to avoid spoiling plot points, but fear not…I’ll tread carefully.  Just consider that the problem is a direct result of how much the story and technique are married in this picture.

Boris (Batalov) loves Veronica (the lovely Samoilova), and in a few carefree moments at the beginning of the picture, we share in their warm romance.  A superb example of how the film’s technique enhances the emotion is when Boris sprints up several flights of stairs to follow Veronica…the camerawork is impeccable, and the energy is almost too great to contain.

But the Nazis have begun their Russian invasion, and Boris has volunteered to fight, much to his own sadness and that of Veronica and his father, Feodor (Merkuryev).  In other sequence of technical marvel, both Boris and Veronica frantically search for one another at the train station in long, unbroken tracking shots that will make film students wonder how Urusevsky managed to weave his camera so fluidly in such tight, chaotic spaces.

As Boris heads for the front, Veronica is left alone but under the lustful eye of Mark (Shvorin), a pianist who got out of being drafted because of his musical skills (maybe).  She, of course, doesn’t return his affection, but war brings out the worst in some.  In another audacious sequence, Mark forcefully confesses his feelings to Veronica as their faces are horrifically lit by the falling bombs just outside.  

Shamed by the rape, Veronica agrees to marry Mark, much to the heartbreak of Boris’ family, whom she had been staying with since her own home was destroyed in an air raid.  The film sadly follows both her at home and Boris on the front, and makes clear that not only has war robbed them of their ability to be together, but of the very illusion of their togetherness as well.

That’s as far as I want to tread…there’s much more to the story as it works its way towards its sober conclusion.  The cinematography continues to progress with the plot, bringing more and more stunning shots to the screen, including one where Veronica runs frantically as the camera tracks her with deft speed, while her image is blurred by the fence between them.  Another tour-de-force is a short sequence that speaks volumes during a critical moment for Boris.  In other words, The Cranes are Flying is a story that could not have been told any other way but cinematically…maybe the basic plot and structure could have been delivered, but not the emotional impact.

But not all of Kalatozov and Urusevsky’s work strives for bold effect.  One of the film’s most unforgettable images is also one of the simplest…the luminescence of Veronica’s face as she finally finds the goodbye letter Boris left for her on the day he departed for the front.  The lighting creates a soft, otherworldly glow upon Ms. Samoilova’s pretty face, in a shot that Josef von Sternberg would have applauded.

The Cranes are Flying is an amazing achievement by any analysis.  Combining bold, fresh cinematic techniques with a moving and emotional story about war torn lovers, it’s a picture no movie lover should pass up for any reason.

Video ****

Criterion has offered one of their most beautiful black and white transfers yet for this DVD.  Considering the age and origin of the film, what is presented on this disc is nothing short of miraculous.  The print is exceptionally clean, the images are sharp and crisp with remarkable detail from foreground to background, blacks are deep and strong and whites are clean and pure.  There is no grain evident, regardless of lighting level, and the rich tones of grayscale render flawlessly, with no distortions, chroma noise, flickering, or any other problem you might expect from an older film.  Criterion has once again raised the bar for classic film presentation on DVD…time for the other studios to follow suit.

Audio ***1/2

This may be the highest rating I’ve ever given a single channel mono mix, particularly one for a subtitled film where dialogue clarity doesn’t matter much.  This is a clean, lively, and dynamic listen from start to finish, with scenes ranging from pin-drop quiet to boisterously loud…think of the sounds of war, the massive crowd sequences, and so on.  These all render crisply through the center speaker, with no distortions or undue sense of cacophony.  The music by M. Vainberg is a strong plus, too.  A superb effort!

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

The Cranes are Flying is Soviet cinema at its very best.  It’s indicative of every great technical and emotional innovation to come out of Russian filmmaking, and it resonates with a power and beauty in a way that only cinema could capture and express.  With this gorgeously presented DVD from Criterion, this is a must own…you’ll definitely want to experience the pleasure of this movie again and again.