Welcome back, readers. Christian’s Cinematic Syntax is back for the fall semester, and I am excited to share my thoughts on a new batch of films that really caught my attention. Unlike last semester, I will be less strict on what I review, but I will continue selecting based on my world film preference. My “Modern Cinema From Around the World” series was last semester, and now I intend to just publish reviews as their own, without a series attached. Without further ado, I will begin with the 1957 Palme d’Or winning drama, The Cranes Are Flying.
An anti-war film that battled censorship at its release, The Cranes Are Flying focuses on a young couple facing tragedy. Boris (Aleksey Batalov), a factory worker, and Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova), a nurse, are thrust into a harsh reality of life during wartime. Boris volunteers for service, leaving Veronika with a toy squirrel, a birthday gift, and her only memento of him. The couple, now separated, fight their own battles. Veronika resists the romantic advances of Boris’ cousin at home while Boris fights the enemy on the front lines. As the film progresses, these characters change, and tragedy strikes. Veronika and Boris lose the most so the Soviet Union and allied forces can continue on.
My initial reaction is absolute awe. A powerful exhibition of the film medium under the direction of Mikhail Kalatozov, with cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky in control of the camera. The characters, the editing, the themes, the mise en scene and cinematography. Ahead of their time and wonderfully presented. The ending almost left me in tears, and I found myself sitting and reflecting on humanity. Somehow, as I was reflecting, my personal problems disappeared momentarily. I saw a light of the human experience, coming in the form of humanity’s ability to persevere after horrendous events. The growth of the central heroine, Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova), is what really gave me longing for a brighter future— a potential future with no war. Throughout the film, Veronika is left in the dark as to her fiance Boris’ safety and is tested to keep faithful. As a bit of dramatic irony, we already witnessed Boris’ death in the form of a striking sequence. The sequence: a zoom out of the moon, a superimposition of Boris running up upstairs, the forest he is in spinning, and a shot of Veronika and him on their wedding day. The whole sequence suspends us as though we are dying with Boris, and we realize that Boris’ life just flashed before his eyes. Suddenly, as though it never stopped, time resumes, and Boris falls into shallow water. As we cut back to Veronika’s life, we wait for her to get news of his death.
The portion of the ending that caused me to reflect on humanity is the moment after Stepan (Valentin Zubkov) shows Veronika the photo that Boris kept on his person. Stepan shows her this photo silently, which visually indicates that Boris had died. We closely watch her expression in close-up. Tears run down her cheeks, and she wanders through the crowd wielding a bouquet, suddenly stopping near a stranger. Stepan takes a microphone and speaks to the crowd. His eloquent speech essentially breaks down to two main points— to remember, revere the people who did not make it and progress forward. After the address, Veronika’s face lightens from a look of absolute suffering into a smile. She begins giving flowers to random people. For a character who lost her love and struggled with herself throughout the film, this is a fantastic development to reach as a character. The ending is a hopeful one that is furthered with Boris’ father’s arrival, who still plays a role in Veronika’s life and is a remnant of a parent.
Major conflict comes from Veronika’s internal struggles. She heavily maintains her vow not to forget the past, and she promises herself that she will not forget Boris. However, Boris does not write to her, making forgetting inevitable. While Boris is away, she marries his cousin, Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), who seems narcissistic. The cousin provides major conflict for most of the film with Mark and Veronika arguing constantly. The arguments occur when the family moves to Siberia to work in a hospital. In one argument, Veronika says she wishes that Mark was never born. After this, he complains about her nagging and dismisses her. Much later, it comes to light that Mark cheated on Veronika and used his uncle’s signature to get an exemption from the draft. All of this conflict is so perfectly acted out, with the actors delivering emotive and serious performances. The scene in which Veronika finds her parents dead after an air raid is a perfect example of stunning acting. The character is brought to exemplify the coldness of war, all in one shot, through expression alone:
Brilliantly, the Cranes are Flying shows some coincidences in life that one could almost think spiritually connected. In my personal experience, I have had coincidences that almost seem too close to comfort. These coincidences are so strange, such as hearing something right after one thought about it. I believe the filmmakers use coincidences for cohesion. An example of this is the young child that Veronika saves. Veronika intends to kill herself and saves a child instead, with the coincidence of the child’s name being Boris, like her fiance. Veronika ends up taking this child in as her own. Additionally, probably one of the most challenging sequences is the catalyst to her suicide attempt. A patient in a hospital refuses to eat because his fiance left him while he was at war. Coincidentally, Veronika did the same to Boris. What is intense about the scene is Boris’ father, the doctor, condemning women unfaithful to their husbands as “worse than the fascists”– all in front of Veronika, from a parental figure. After his condemnation, Veronika moves toward her suicide, with fantastic quick editing and shots of Veronika running. The fast pace with objects obscuring her shows an inner turmoil, all revealed through cinematic technique.
In essence, my love of The Cranes Are Flying is immense. Many details, from the richness of character to the techniques unique to cinema, washed over me. The film is an absolute must-see, a piece of history. I would like to finalize my review with a look at the symbol that was the film’s namesake, the cranes flying. The shot of the cranes flying in an arrow was both at the beginning and the end, indicating more profound significance. What one sees on a basic level from these shots is migration, or moving from place to place. Symbolically, with innumerable possible meanings, I feel that an acceptable interpretation of these cranes could be either humanity moving forward or time passing. These particular shots of the cranes connect the beginning and end, as though the image connotes Boris’ migration to fight in battle, and the Soviet victors moving forward to post-war. Moreover, the poem Veronika repeats makes these shots of cranes more memorable, as the poetry adds to the already poetic shots.
“Cranes like ships, sailing the sky. White ones, grey ones with long beaks they fly.”
— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.
Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.” Additionally, his poem “The Japanese Photography is Covered in Dust” is forthcoming from City Brink Magazine. In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavettes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.