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DVD SAVANT

Ballad of a Soldier
&
The Cranes are Flying

Separate releases reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In the late 1950's Russian films began to be shown more freely in the United States, and the most popular by far were these two pictures about love in wartime. Beautifully shot, with highly emotional storylines and impassioned performances from glowingly attractive leading players, they were warmly welcomed by American art movie audiences.  1


Ballad of a Soldier
Criterion 148
1959 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 89 m. / Ballada o soldate
Starring Volodya Ivashov, Zhanna Prokhorenko, Antonina Maksimova, Nikolai Kryuchkov, Yevgeni Urbansky
Cinematography Vladimir Nikolayev, Era Savelyeva
Production Designer Boris Nemechek
Film Editor Mariya Timofeyeva
Original Music Mikhail Ziv
Writing credits G. Chukhraj and V. Yezhov
Produced by M. Chernova
Directed by Grigori Chukhraj

Synopsis:

For knocking out two German tanks, 19-year-old Private Alyosha Skvortsov (Volodya Ivashov) is given an unheard of reward -- a six-day pass to go home and see his mother. But his trip is delayed by train schedules and detours he takes to help strangers he meets: a wounded soldier (Yevgeni Urbansky) afraid to see his wife again and Shura, a shy girl who smuggles herself into Aloysha's freight car (Zhanna Prokhorenko). Their relationship grows over just a few hours and then they must go separate ways -- and Alyosha might not get home at all.

This feature starts as if it were a stereotypical Soviet war saga, and almost immediately becomes a softer, sentimental story of a country boy trying to get home to Mama. Young Alyosha is immediately likeable but very shy and inexperienced, so when he meets up with the equally shy Shura, sparks fly. She initially fights like a wildcat, thinking anybody in a uniform might rape her. Suspicions melt away and true love forms. Their relationship is a universal one, evoking everyone's teenage heartbreaks and unarticulated yearnings. Separated and reunited, they react with undisguised joy when it becomes clear that each has searched for the other. The fact that they're fated to be sweethearts for only a day or so is a strongly felt, bittersweet touch.

The story is really an idealized portrait of the Russian character. A crippled soldier hesitates to go home until he's berated by a female ticket seller (Nina Menshikova): "How do you think she feels!" Everyone is sacrificing and suffering, but truck drivers go out of their way to help Aloysha. There's little speechmaking for the glory of the communist system, and Aloysha is identified only as a 'simple Russian soldier'.

Director Chukhraj's camera is fluid but basic, saving his best effects for aestheticized close-ups of Zhanna Prokhorenko that are as beautiful as anything from '30s Hollywood, and surely broke a lot of young Russian hearts. Young Ivashov is almost as pretty, resembling somewhat a gangly Soviet version of Ethan Hawke. When Aloysha reaches his home for just a few rushed moments, it's as if he were returning from the dead, there for only a minute to hug and kiss his mother, and then be gone again. There's a neighbor girl who follows him around a bit, an alternate romance that could have happened, but didn't.

The movie has many brief poignant moments like that, with people in wartime meeting and connecting and then moving on. Short, sweet and simple, Ballad of a Soldier is a very charming and beautiful film.



The Cranes are Flying
Criterion 146
1957 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 97 m. / Letjat zhuravli
Starring T. Samojlova, V. Merkuryev, A. Shvorin, S. Kharitonova, K. Nikitin
Cinematography S. Urusevsky
Production design Yevgeni Svidetelyov
Film Editor Mariya Timofeyeva
Original Music Moisej Vajnberg
Writing credits Viktor Rozov from his play
Produced and Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov (Mikheil Kalatozishvili)

Ballad is touching and pleasant, but Kalatozov's The Cranes are Flying will knock you off your feet. It's an emotional tale of love, war, separation and loss told with breathtaking cinematic precision. The performances are pretty nigh unforgettable, especially that of the lead actress. It's a lot of people's favorite Russian movie, and it was a relativately popular attraction during its American arthouse run.

Synopsis:

Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova) is in love with Boris (Aleksei Batalov) and is shattered when he volunteers to go off to war. Her parents are killed in a bombing, so she moves in with Boris' family. There the pressures of war and repeated air raids throw her into the arms of Boris' cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin). They are married to the dismay of just about everyone, including Veronika herself. Shipped off to the East as the Germans invade, the Muscovites try to hold things together. Veronika can't disguise her misery and self-hatred.

We're in good hands from the very beginning. The formal visuals use strong diagonals in a scene on a giant bridge and careful lighting in the clincher close-ups of the two young lovers. But they never overwhelm the performance of the stunning Tatyana Samojlova, who carries the film with an intensity to rival any Western actress. The dark-haired, smiling beauty is never a simplified 'girl in love' - her teasing and bossing of the likeable Aleksei Batalov (of the inspiring science fiction drama Nine Days of One Year) evokes a full personality demanding to exist on its own. It's fascinating to watch the expressions on her face, whether radiating joy or narrowing her catlike eyes with internalized pain. Her performance and the emotional extremes of the story remind us of a smoother, more lifelike Jennifer Jones. The fine liner notes by Chris Fujiwara tell us that director Kalatazov spent some war time in Hollywood, and the comparison of the intensity of this show to the emotional heights of King Vidor's Jennifer Jones movies is an apt one.

The Cranes are Flying has a vibrant cinematic flexibility that includes sweeping crowd scenes that take one's breath away. The trucking and crane shots for Boris' farewell are an oft-mentioned highlight. Sergei Urusevsky's camera starts on a bus, pursues Veronika through a crush of people and finally soars upward when she runs into the background through an onrushing phalanx of tanks. It's what we call a money-shot, and it's a doozie. Veronika's emotions remain the center of interest (she's desperate to see her beau before he goes away) and the sequence is a total success. Director and cameraman collaborated later on the knockout exercise for moving camera known as I Am Cuba; here the choreographed camera moves are sublimated to the subject matter.

Another emotional scene, when Veronika flees a veteran's hospital in an emotional panic, brings back memories of silent movies. As she runs, handheld angles break the image into expressionistic blurs seen through picket fences or jittery clusters of shaking tree branches reminding us of Pabst's The Love of Jeanne Ney.

Finally, another montage bests anything done by Hollywood - Boris' gloriously idealized vision of his wedding with Veronika. A series of overlapping dissolves, it proves the Soviets' ability to do superior optical work as well. Each of these segments is less than a minute long, but after each one you think, "That's the best sequence of that kind I've ever seen."

Much of the drama of The Cranes are Flying revolves around Veronika's decision to take Mark as first a lover, and then a husband while still being in love with Boris. Unlike Ballad, this picture states the Soviet party line, only to contradict it. The girls from the factory bring official salutations from the working comrades, but readily admit that their personal feelings are much more important to them. Boris' doctor father (Vasily Merkuryev) helps a heartbroken patient whose girl has ditched him by loudly berating all 'worthless women' who would desert a soldier when he's doing his duty. Veronika is present, and it shatters her. But later on it is the father who first comes to understand her emotional plight; his previous speech was just to give the boy back his pride.

Sentiment ends up the focus of Kalatazov's camera -- when Veronika finally finds peace with herself, it's in another crowd of Russians rejoicing in the return of their loved ones at the war's end. With deep oaths to maintain the peace and to save mothers and children, the elaborate trucking shots show us dozens of happy faces swimming around Veronika as she gives out flowers one by one, sublimating her own heartbreak. The honesty of the emotions evoked is overpowering.


Criterion's DVD editions of Ballad of a Soldier and The Cranes are Flying are handsome and respectful presentations. The pictures have undergone Criterion's quality restoration process, which gives the rich photography a deep lustre. A few cut points ride and every once in a while a faint scratch appears momentarily, but besides that the shows are pristine.

Cranes has no extras to speak of. Ballad has a treat in the form of an audio interview with the director and his young stars, recorded after a 1960 screening in New York. That the Russians allowed their artists to go to America to promote the film shows that Kruschev's 'cultural thaw' was more than just words. At least for a while. The East German film Heisse sommer from 1966 openly sought to discourage any 'star' attention for its popular young actors, as detracting from the image of collectivist expression.

The graphics on the packaging of both discs are handsome and creative. Both films have had their subtitles re-written for improved accuracy. To the delight of Russian teachers everywhere, the subtitles are removable.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ballad of a Soldier rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Audio interview with Director Chukhrai and actors Ivashov and Prokhorenko
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 25, 2002


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cranes are Flying rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: None
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 25, 2002


Footnote:

1. Movies had served heavy duty as Cold War weapons just a few years earlier. The Russian Serebristaya pyl (Silver Dust) was seen in Europe by the notoriously conservative Claire Booth Luce, and denounced by her as vile propaganda. Backed by the power of Time magazine, Luce often converted her personal preferences into cultural policy - she's more famous for successfully lobbying to keep the supposedly anti-American Blackboard Jungle from being distributed abroad. Filmed in the Soviet Union, Silver Dust takes place in America. A scientist's invention is wanted as a weapon, so the U.S. government dispatches military generals, spies and assassins to get it from him at any cost. People are shown striking blacks down as if they were still slaves, and American rights were portrayed as only for the rich or well-connected. By contrast, the two films in this review were welcomed because they were considered to be free of that kind of propaganda. (info on Silver Dust from Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Films)
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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