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Sunday Movie: The Cranes are Flying / Летят журавли directed by Mikhail Kalatozov

The Cranes are Flying / Летят журавли directed by Mikhail Kalatozov
translit. Letyat zhuravli

Film Review by Graeme Hobbs

At the film's start, obliviously happy sweethearts are skipping along a dam wall at dawn with sunlight glinting on the water. Immediately apparent is the striking boldness of composition; soon we are looking down on the couple framed in a constructivist composition of shadows and angles which sensitizes us to the theme of people set against their surroundings and that continues throughout – against staircases, steel barricades, bombed-out buildings, tanks in the street.

The Cranes are Flying, winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1958, was made during 'The Kruschev Thaw' that followed his denunciation of Stalin's cult of personality. In cinema, this meant the freedom to move away from stereotypical Stalinist heroes and show a more nuanced view of events and, significantly, the suffering and sacrifice of ordinary people.

The story, of sweethearts' love ruined by war and fraternal betrayal, is largely melodramatic, but the performances lend it heartfelt credence. Vassili Merkuriev as Boris's father is both strong and vulnerable, weighing sacrifice with practical duty; most engaging of all though is Tatiana Samoilova as Veronika, who is especially winsome in the exuberant impulsiveness of her early scenes with Boris.

Excitingly, Kalatozov's direction is a direct link to an earlier, experimental age of Soviet filmmaking. We notice the extreme close-ups and a striking use of light and shadow, which is especially effective after Boris has tacked a blanket across a window. When he then tells Veronika that he has volunteered for the army, the shards of light that angle across Veronika's face actually look like they hurt.

This visual strength is complemented by an inspired sound design that peaks during the air raid sequence in which wails of sirens spiral to cacophony with Mark's frenzied piano playing. In the silence that follows, the crunch of feet across a floor of broken glass becomes the squelch of soldier's boots through mud.

Sergei Urusevsky's camerawork is also striking, especially in how well it conveys the confusion of the throng in moving through crowds. Kalatozov and Urusevsky's artistry would of course culminate eight years later in Soy Cuba.

An interesting synopsis by an IMDB user

1956 was the 20th Congress of the Communist Party and the Soviet Premier Krushchev made a speech denouncing Stalin and the Stalinist purges and the gulag labor systems, revealing information that was previously forbidden, publicly revealing horrible new truths, which opened the door for a new Soviet Cinema led by Mikhail Kalatozov, once Stalin's head of film production.

This film features a Red Army that is NOT victorious, in fact they are encircled, in a retreat mode, with many people dying, including the hero, in a film set after 06-02-41, the German invasion of Russia when Germany introduced the Barbarossa Plan, a blitzkrieg invasion intended to bring about a quick victory and the ultimate enslavement of the Slavs, and very nearly succeeded, actually getting within 20 miles of Moscow in what was a Red Army wipe out, a devastation of human losses, 15 to 20 million Russians died, or 20% of the entire population.

Historically, this was a moment of great trauma and suffering, a psychological shock to the Russian people, but the Red Army held and prolonged the war 4 more years until they were ultimately victorious.

During the war, Stalin used the war genre in films for obvious morale boosting, introducing female heroines who were ultra-patriotic and strong and idealistic, suggesting that if females could be so successful and patriotic, then Russia could expect at least as much from their soldiers. Stalin eliminated the mass hero of the proletariat and replaced it with an individual, bold leader who was successful at killing many of the enemy, an obvious reference to Stalin himself, who was always portrayed in film as a bold, wise and victorious leader.

But Kalatozov changed this depiction, as THE CRANES ARE FLYING was made after Stalin's death, causing a political thaw and creating a worldwide sensation, winning the Cannes Film Festival Palm D'Or, as well as the Best Director and Best Actress (Tatyana Samoilova), reawakening the West to Soviet Cinema for the first time since Eisenstein's IVAN THE TERRIBLE in the 40's.

This film featured brilliant, breathtaking, and extremely mobile camera work from his extraordinary cinematographer Sergei Uresevsky, using spectacular crane and tracking shots, images of wartime, battlefields, Moscow and crowded streets that are extremely vivid and real.

Another brilliant scene features the lead heroine, Veronica, who hasn't heard from her lover, Boris, in the 4 years at war, so he is presumed dead, but she continues to love him, expressed in a scene where she runs towards a bridge with a train following behind her, a moment when the viewer was wondering if she might throw herself in front of that train, instead she saves a 3 yr old boy named Boris who was about to be hit by a car.

Another scene captures the death of Boris on the battlefield, who dies a senseless death, and his thoughts spin and whirl in a beautiful montage of trees, sky, leaves, all spinning in a kaleidoscope of his own thoughts and dreams, including an imaginary wedding with Veronica.

This film features the famous line, "You can dream when the war is over." In the final sequence, when the war is over, the soldiers are returning in a mass scene on the streets, Veronica learns Boris died, all are happy and excited with the soldier's return, but Veronica is in despair, passing out flowers to soldiers and strangers on the street in an extreme gesture of generosity and selflessness revealing "cranes white and gray floating in the sky."

The film was released in 1957 in Russia, and according to some reviews, "the silence in the theater was profound, the wall between art and living life had fallen...and tears unlocked the doors."


Production Crew
Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov (28 December 1903 – 26 March 1973)
Script/screenplay by Victor Rozov
Cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky
Film Editing by Mariya Timofeyeva
Original Music by Moisey Vainberg

Running Time: 97 minutes
Language: Russian
Subtitles: English
Colour: B/W
Production © Mosfilm 1957

Palme d’Or at the Cannes IFF, 1958
Special Diploma for Best Actress (Tatiana Samoilova) at the Cannes IFF, 1958
Honorary Diploma at the Locarno IFF, 1958
Silver Sombrero Prize at the Guadalajara IFF, 1958
Nominated for 2 BAFTA Film Awards, 1959

Check the Internet Movie Database for further information.
Buy the DVD at Ruscico - Russian Classic Films with great extras (various subtitle languages available.)

Note: If you are unable to watch the film, it's because you're missing the proper codec, please download the DivX Plus Web Player for Windows here


  1. Sorry for the (weird and silly) adverts on the top of the player, it's a free service...in any case enjoy one of the best movies ever made in the History of Cinema.

  2. One of my favourites from the Soviet era along with "Potemkin" and "Moscow does not believe in tears".


  3. What a beautiful and moving film Joana. I'm so glad you posted this, as Russia and it's people are very close to my heart. My only regret is that someone very dear to me didn't get too watch it too. Many, many thanks. x


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