There has been a lot of press of late regarding the welfare of Iranian directors, especially Jafar Panahi, who was recently imprisoned for making films deemed to have an intention to incite “crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” This is nothing new and whilst outrageous behaviour that in no way can be condoned, there are still many who argue that this kind of government repression has actually resulted in some of the most innovative and daring pieces of films we have ever seen. Take, for example, the most popular Soviet film ever made, Battleship Potemkin, a piece of communist propaganda that, whilst heralded by many as one of the greatest movies of all time, still very much maintains a strong Stalinist message. The Cranes Are Flying was made in the old Soviet Union in 1957 (five years after the death of Joseph Stalin) and still remains very much a film created behind the Iron Curtain. Despite all this, it somehow managed to rise above all the restrictions that state governance placed upon it to win the Palme D’Or at The Cannes Film Festival the following year.
The film opens with our central characters, Boris and Veronika, two star-crossed lovers enjoying a romantic rendezvous upon a Moscow river embankment. It isn’t long, though, before the two are separated due to the outbreak of the Second World War, a war Boris feels obligated to volunteer for.
Boris is quickly rushed to the front line on the day before Veronika’s birthday, and is unable to give her the farewell he had planned.
As the war unravels, Veronika finds herself drawn into a downward spiral of events which she could never have previously imagined, yet she remains hopeful that one day she will hear from her true love…
Although The Cranes Are Flying was released in the USSR after the relaxation of the ‘cult of personality’ (an ideal that the enhancement and promotion of Stalinist political doctrines should be educated to the masses through visual propaganda and the censorship of Western media), Soviet cinema still remained property of the state, and thus heavily censored. As with modern day Iran, any film deemed politically offensive was either edited down or removed from distribution. Despite this, The Cranes Are Flying still managed to stir strong emotions from the people of the Soviet Republic.
For us, a story about two lovers separated by war is nothing original; however, for the people of the USSR, it was their first chance to grieve for those lost during the largest war of our modern history. Up until The Cranes Are Flying, no-one had dared show a realistic interpretation of the war, instead focusing on the historic victories of Stalin’s army against the evils of the fascist dictatorship of the Nazi Party. Indeed, as previously mentioned, the cult of personality determined that all films produced during this time must celebrate both Lenin and Stalin. Yet, let us not forget that during the Second World War, the Soviet Union lost more than twice the number of any other participating country (admittedly, most of these casualties were the result of unsanitary accommodation, harsh training regimes and a lack of firepower, which resulted in many solders having to wait for their comrade in front to fall before gaining access to a gun).
But enough of the history lesson, how does the film hold up by itself? First thing to mention would be the stellar cinematography. The film’s use of, at the time, groundbreaking hand-held camera work is to this day still a joy to behold. There is one pivotal scene which will stay in the memories of anyone who watches this film. It uses a montage of shots, including a spiral staircase that makes Hitchcock’s famous scene from Vertigo look like child’s play. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place in the most modern and stylish of art house films. Cinematographer Sergei Uruseveky learnt this technique of shooting without using a tripod whilst doing his national service, and obviously combined his knowledge of war with his exceptional eye for a shot and immaculate use of ambient lighting. This combination of bold shots and strong performances, especially from Tatyana Samojlova, help emphasize all the feelings of destruction, separation and hopelessness that we have all come to recognize in our war films.
Director Mikhaol Kalatozov must also be commended, if only for his daring decision to include such topics as war profiteering and draft dodging. Although issues well known to the Soviet people at the time, they had been greatly ignored in the history archives of Russian cinema.
The only criticism to aim at this film, which truly deserves to be heralded as one of the greatest pieces of Soviet Cinema, is the fact that it is still very much a piece of Soviet cinema – there is still a strong underlying current of communist propaganda throughout. The film continues to portray Russia as a great superpower, with no recognition of any of its national problems. Many issues are avoided like the spread of famine throughout the country during, and very much after the war. But could you honestly say that a film like Saving Private Ryan isn’t slightly pro capitalism and pro America?
The Cranes Are Flying is indeed a prime example of how state controlled cinema, through its abundance of government funding, can sometimes result in truly amazing and innovative filmmaking. All this whilst keeping at bay the loss of identity that mass globalization can sometimes bring. Perhaps this is an element of our flourishing relationship with America that we should not ignore.