For the second year in a row, The Criterion Collection and the Sundance Channel are partnering to present a selection of cinematic works from around the world in the "The Sundance Channel Presents Classic World Cinema from The Criterion Collection" program. These films will air on the Sundance Channel Saturday and Sunday nights at 9:00 P.M. ET/PT during July and August 2002, offering viewers something "different" for their summer viewing pleasure. "Loves of a Blonde", directed by Milos Forman, airs on Saturday, July 27th, and "The Cranes Are Flying", directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, airs on Sunday, July 28th. (For more information, visit http://www.sundancechannel.com/feature/?sContent=July2002.)
During the post-World-War-II years, Stalin forbade filmmakers from making anything except positivistic, nationalistic movies filled with the usual clichés about unerring leaders, patriotic youths, and the glories of communist life. Following death, Soviet cinema was allowed to breathe freely again (relatively speaking, of course!), and filmmakers began telling stories about the high costs of war--the pain, the suffering, the anguish of separation and loss.
For me, good movies are ones with good stories populated by multi-faceted characters. "The Cranes Are Flying", directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, relates the twist-filled story of Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova), a young Russian girl whose boyfriend volunteers to go to the front to fight the invading Nazis. With the war effort consuming the Soviet Union's resources, mail delivery comes to a virtual standstill. Boris (Alexei Batalov) has no way of sending Veronica letters, so our poor heroine must nervously wait with no end to her anxiety in sight.
German airplanes bombing Moscow kill Veronica's family, so she moves in with Boris's relatives. During her first night at their apartment, the fragile and emotionally-devastate Veronica finds herself facing the aggressive advances of Mark, Boris's cousin. While not shown, a rape is implied via an image of Veronica's upside-down face superimposed over a burning city. The tainted sexual relationship between the two leads to an unhappy marriage between the two and Boris's family believing that Veronica has been unfaithful to him.
These events unfold fairly quickly during the film's first half hour, and the remainder of the movie focuses on Veronica's guilt and troubled relations with her family. There are healing, rehabilitative moments, including when Veronica takes care of an orphan named Boris and when she comes to terms with reality at the end of the movie. Veronica isn't the only character that changes and grows, however. Mark turns out to be more of a bastard than one realizes initially, and Boris's father comes to realize that Veronica has suffered not just the pains that anyone endures in a war but also betrayal at the hands of those who are supposed to protect her.
In the movie, Boris affectionately calls Veronica "Squirrel". As he leaves for the war the day before her birthday, he asks his grandmother to give Veronica a present that he has prepared--a Beanie-Baby-ish squirrel carrying a basket of gold-painted nuts. Boris leaves a note in the basket, and one of the film's emotional hooks is for the viewer to wait until Veronica finally reads the note.
Soviet/Russian filmmakers are acknowledged as masters of montage editing. Yes, all editing is montage in the strictest sense of the word, but Soviet/Russian cinema offers images cut together for maximum political/emotional effect. I've already mentioned the rape scene, but there's another notable example of Soviet montage. During a sequence when Veronica is running away from her home to the train station, the filmmakers resort to speeded motion. The faster-than-normal playback of film heightens the viewer's perception of Veronica's desperation, and the action cuts between shots of the sky rushing by, shots of Veronica's face in close-up, and shots of Veronica running behind a row of fences. The quick blur of gaps between fence posts creates a strobe-like effect. When the fast-forward editing ends, it feels (rather than simply looks) as if Veronica has almost catapulted herself off a bridge!
The superb cinematography deserves a mention, too. During one sequence, Veronica tries to get to the assembly hall to say farewell to Boris, and a camera follows her through endless crowds. Suddenly, as she steps into a street filled with a procession of tanks, the camera rises dramatically into the air in one continuous, shot. This is rather unexpected because the low-angle camera looks about to be eye-level with the actress, indicating a hand-held lens or a dolly-track. However, as the camera sweeps upwards, the film explodes from the intimate to the epic.
Like the majority of films made in communist countries (see Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home" for a recent example), "The Cranes Are Flying" seems rather simple at first glance. However, the underlying themes explore the complex nature of humanity. Veronica's emotional odyssey spirals towards dark lows and soaring highs, and the 1958 Cannes Film Festival jury awared the film it's Palme d'Or. Watching the movie is a richer, more rewarding experience than anything from Hollywood in the summer of 2002 (except for Steven Spielberg's masterful "Minority Report").
Despite displaying the expected physical wear-and-tear of a movie made in 1957, "The Cranes Are Flying" looks quite beautiful on DVD. Although one can't credit Criterion for the film's breathtaking cinematography (cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky would certainly turn in his grave if that happened!), one CAN credit Criterion for taking the fine-grain print supplied by Mosfilm and cleaning it to pristine condition. There are times when vertical or horizontal lines run across the 1.33:1 (full-frame on 4:3 monitors) print, but "The Cranes Are Flying" compares favorably to another black-and-white classic on DVD--"Citizen Kane".
The Dolby Digital 1.0 Russian track sounds pretty good, but it displays many of the limitations of mono tracks created prior to 1990. Shrill sounds (such as whistling train engines) are unstable and unnaturally piercing, and low frequencies are simply non-existent. However, the actors' voices are always clear, distinct, and understandable, and there's basically no hiss. As long as the music used in the movie wasn't recorded at too-high volumes, it sounds fine as well.
Optional English subtitles are available.
Alas, due to the fact that filmmakers in the 1950s weren't thinking about DVDs, there was little material that Criterion could gather for its DVD edition of "The Cranes Are Flying". Therefore, the only bonus material on the disc is a screen of color bars, helpful to viewers who need to adjust their monitors for proper viewing levels.
A glossy fold-out insert provides an informative essay about the film, film credits, DVD credits, and chapter listings.
Considered a milestone in post-Stalin Soviet cinema, "The Cranes Are Flying" is a very good movie on its own terms, even when removed from a historical context. This is a rare war film that focuses on the impact of war on domestic life rather than on actual combat. Despite the fact that a female character must carry the burden of dimensionalizing the story's central love story, the talented, expressive Tatiana Samoilova elicits sympathy and genuine tears from her viewers. Be sure not to miss "The Cranes Are Flying" on the Sundance Channel, or at least get your hands on a copy of Criterion's DVD!