The Soviet film The Cranes are Flying is one of the most cinematically compelling films in the history of cinema but for some reason it is not yet well known. Perhaps it is because it was made in the Soviet Union in 1957 a few years after the death of Stalin a time when the United States was deeply distrustful of anything that came out of a Communist country: Especially a film, which could potentially have a message involved.
The film directed by Mikhail Kalatozov is a tragic tale about a young love that is interrupted by World War II. Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Alexei Batalov) are madly in love and engaged to be married but when the war comes along Boris decides to volunteer. He reluctantly leaves and Veronica pines for his return. She waits a long time and when she doesn't hear from him after a year she begins to assume that he may have died. So she halfhearted marries Boris' cousin. Yet, she still longs for his return.
The plot is pretty straightforward but the highly stylized way it is told through fabulous cinematography and sharply expressive editing makes the film a must see for anyone interested in landmark foreign films. The cinematography was done by Sergei Urusevsky who shot four films with Kalatozov (the most notable of which is I Am Cuba). Together the director and the DP impressively use chiaroscuro black & white, deep focus cinematography along with wide angle lenses, long handheld tracking shots, crane shots, low, high and Dutch angles. It's as if they set out to wow the audience as much as Orson Welles and Gregg Toland did with Citizen Kane.
But the visuals do more than astound the audience; they tell the story too. The long tracking shots add a certain tension that cannot be achieved through normal editing. And, quite often, the editing is used to pointed effect to create a particular mental state that the characters are feeling. The style in this case is enough to keep the film from being bogged down in its otherwise slight story.
Some of the splendid handheld and camera crane work is done in Chapter 6 when Veronica looks for Boris in a large crowd of people. A striking lighting sequence is on display in Chapter 8 when a bombing raid and a domestic quarrel take place simultaneously. And Chapter 10 has battlefield scenes that utilize both long tracking shots and triple super-imposed shots. A dynamic experimental film sequence is used in Chapter 14 when Veronica runs in a mad dash, considers suicide and then saves a young boy from being hit in the street by a truck.
Other than the cinematic style there are two things about The Cranes are Flying that make it rise above its simple plot. One is the fact that Veronica who is the main character of the film is not loyal to her fiancι. Where most films would put her in a bad light this one is sympathetic to her betrayal. The other and most remarkable thing about the film is that it was made at all since it takes such a stance against a lot of the Communist nationalism of the Soviet Union. The film takes a stab at blind patriotism and clearly shows that such a stance can ruin individual relationships. Chances are though the censors were so besotted by the cinematic splendor (as well as the half-hearted nationalistic ending) that they let it pass.