The cranes of the film’s title refer to the large majestic fowl admired by a couple of Russian working class lovebirds named Veronika and Boris — played by Tatyana Samoylova and Aleksey Batalov — during the waning days of World War II. The cranes symbolize the lovers’ hope for skies filled with natural beauty rather than birds of war — namely German warplanes.
During its first act, Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov captures the couple’s exuberant affection for one another in stylized medium and close-up shots that emphasize Moscow’s urban architecture around them. That Kalatozov borrows formal compositional techniques from German Expressionist Cinema, for such a deliberate anti-war film, adds to its irrefutable power.
The lovers’ scenes together are given imperative compositions to emphasize the confining nature of outside forces that threaten the amorous pas de deux they share. In spite of the war that rages around them, Veronika and Boris seem to share a bright future together. When they return to their respective apartments after spending precious moments together, the lovers each throw themselves onto their beds in a similar fashion. Boris calls Veronika Squirrel, a term of endearment she insist he never stray from using. The audience swept up in the infectious romantic energy that Kalatozov creates onscreen.
The visual simplicity that Kalatozov uses to establish the story allows the filmmaker to gradually — painstakingly — develop the film’s thematic complexity toward a psychological and emotional crescendo that reveals key self-destructive elements of war.
Boris volunteers with a friend to go off to war. He doesn’t warn Veronika of his plans. Whether he does so to spare her some small amount of worry, or because he doesn’t value her opinion is hardly a matter of importance. Once on the battlefield, a fellow soldier’s insult, regarding the photo of Veronika that Boris carries with him, insures that the two men will share in a dangerous recognizance mission together.
Back at home Veronika staves off romantic advances from Boris’s insistent cousin Mark, a concert pianist given a deferral from conscription — supposedly due to his prodigious musical talent. A German bombing raid leaves Veronika homeless and her own family dead. Boris’s physician father Fyodor invites her to come live with his family even as they are forced to relocate east of Moscow.
Being in such close proximity to Mark, allows him to take advantage of Veronika when circumstance allows. Their forced marriage is a mockery that Veronika escapes while working as a nurse in a hospital with Fyodor. A pivotal sequence involving a wounded soldier left inconsolable after discovering that his girlfriend has married another man, speaks volumes about the judgmental attitudes that misrepresent Veronika’s character in the eyes of society. The tone-deaf speech that Fyodor publicly gives the soldier about the kind of woman who would do such a thing, stabs into Veronika’s heart with lasting damage.
“The Cranes Are Flying” benefits greatly from Tatyana Samoylova’s sturdy performance; her youthful beauty shifts from soft to hard over the course of the story. Veronika becomes a symbol of maturing femininity whose purpose is to promote peace, but the hypocrisy that drove her there remains with her.
Rated PG. 97 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
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