FBTop 100: #100 – The Cranes are Flying

This post is part of a project to watch the Film Bloggers’ 100 Favorite Non-English Films. See my progress here.

The Cranes are Flying

The Cranes are Flying
USSR 1957; dir: Mikhail Kalatozov
starring: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov

screened 11/13/07, Criterion Collection DVD

Previous Viewing Experience: Never seen it before.

Knowledge Before Viewing: I know it’s a Soviet film, and not much more. I’m pretty sure there’s a central romance, and possibly something war-related. I purposely didn’t read anything about it, even the Netflix envelope. I feel like a Soviet film would be depressing, or dark, or overly restricted, but that’s a preconception of Soviet cinema and not this film specifically. A preconception which is likely unfounded, because my knowledge of Soviet cinema is pretty much…Eisenstein. For some reason I also have a sense (though I have no idea from where) that this film isn’t going to be depressing. Possibly it’s because the image of cranes flying seems uplifting. Okay, I keep being tempted to add to this section as I’m watching the first few minutes, and that’s bad. STOP. NO MORE WRITING.

Synopsis: Young lovers Boris and Veronika are separated when he volunteers for the war. Never hearing from him, she marries his cousin, who has an exemption from the draft. Later, she realizes her mistake and continues to hope against hope (and reports from the front) that Boris remains alive and will return to her when the war ends.

Initial Viewing Response: Well, it’s definitely sad. Sadder than I expected, but I still agree with my preconception that it’s not depressing. The thing I’m mostly coming away with is a great pleasure in the painterly aspects of the film. The mise-en-scene is really powerful, if a little more posed than what we’d consider realistic today. In fact, there are a lot of things that aren’t realistic in style at all, and aren’t meant to be. The cousin, Mark, seduces (not a violent enough word) Veronika in a scene which is very nearly expressionistic, during an air raid with Tchaikovsky banging in the background and the wind whipping through the blown-out windows. In a Russian film, this doesn’t really seem unnatural (hello, country of Dostoevsky, who I love BTW), but the scene would be hopelessly overwrought in many other contexts. Another part uses bizarre camera angles and highly disorienting editing (persistence of vision is destroyed first by the slats in a fence, then by unmatching sequential frames) to depict Veronika’s near-suicidal mindset at one point; that sequence is nearly avant-garde, though the rest of the film isn’t terribly (it’s the first minute and a half or so of this clip). The use of montage to create visceral responses in the viewer is a very Russian technique, pioneered by Eisenstein and others in the 1920s. The flip side, though–the use of very careful and painterly mise-en-scene–I tend to associate more with Germany. It’s very interesting to see both of them together in the same film, and both so effectively.

Found the air raid scene on YouTube. I *heart* YouTube. It’s subtitled Spanish, but basically, they hear the air raid sirens, Mark tries to get Veronika to go to the subway (the impromptu air raid shelter), but she refuses because her parents were killed in the last air raid, and she hasn’t quite gotten over it to the point where she’s concerned about her own safety. So Mark stays with her and plays really loudly to try to drown out the noise; after he grabs her in the corner he tells her he loves her, and she cries “no” and hits him a lot. This style of highly theatrical acting is not really found anywhere else in the film, suggesting that it’s very intentional. I haven’t decided yet whether the scene works on that level, but on the level of photography and lighting, I think it’s gorgeous.

Picspam! (I don’t know if I’ll do this all the time; probably depends on how pretty I think the movie is, and how tired I am after watching it)

Reflective Response: Looking back over what I wrote three days ago under initial reactions, I realize that I didn’t talk about the plot hardly at all, which is based in two tendencies I have in general about film. First, I don’t want to spoil anyone who hasn’t seen it yet and might (note: I do spoil a bit of the end in the next two paragraphs–it’s really hard not to when trying to move into criticism instead of just reviewing). I greatly enjoyed watching The Cranes are Flying without knowing anything about it. Second, I’m starting to believe that plot is sort of secondary. I don’t mean that the plot is unimportant, simply that “what is the story” is a less helpful question than “how is the story told.” I’m very interested in narrative and narrative structure, but that’s a bit different than just the events. I was about to invoke David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s distinctions regarding story and plot, but I’ve already mangled the two by using them interchangeably, and I don’t have a copy of Film Art lying around to remind myself of the specifics. Let’s just leave it that what happens in a film is a less compelling value criterion than how it happens. (Same thing is true of books.)

I initially thought some of the motivations in The Cranes are Flying were underdeveloped, specifically Veronika’s decision to marry Mark instead of wait for Boris. But I think it’s more that the narrative underplays the motivations. They are there, but they’re subtle. Mark’s attraction to Veronika is set up very early, but in a light-hearted, playful way that contrasts with his almost menacing advances during the air raid. Is this a character shift? Maybe, because the air raid scene is so very stylized and exaggerated that character is almost subsumed into atmosphere. Yet, on the other hand, the very stylistic differences emphasize the huge shift between two carefree characters who haven’t even considered the possibility of war and two characters whose families have been torn apart and destroyed by a war which invades their very living rooms. Veronika seems to give up on Boris for a while, but the script accounts for that as well–she never receives a single letter from him. It’s not clear if he’s not writing or if the mail isn’t getting through, but the couple of scenes where she hopes to hear from him and doesn’t show her wavering in her belief that he’s still alive or that he still loves her, opening the door for her to succumb to Mark’s advances when they come. Her point of view switches later, when she almost blindly expects to see Boris after the war ends, even though she’s been told that he is dead. Blind disbelief switches to blind belief, though the film ends on a bittersweet note of hope within pain.

It would be easy to criticize the wide range of stylistic devices used in the film as uneven and jarring, but the tension between realism and expressivism is, I think, very important to the visceral difference between war and peace. It isn’t always as balanced as it could be, but it is largely effective. Tatyana Samojlova holds the film together as Veronika, growing from the silly young girl of the beginning into the bitter, unhappily married nurse in the middle, and finally into a strong, centered woman who is able to grieve herself and also join in the joyful celebration of those around her. While watching the final scene, I was struck by how different this woman is from the near-child she was in the first few scenes, and yet the continuity of character was never lost. Her performance alone is worth seeing the film.

  • Abby

    Jandy, you did such a great job with this post. I have never even heard of this movie, but you introduced it well and left enough left unknown so that it was not spoiled (not that I’ll probably ever see it, but you never know :) ) I love what you said about “what is the story?” not being as helpful as “how is the story told?” I mean, of course we want a good story, but an excellent story can be ruined by the way it is told. I think how it’s told is definitely more helpful, because when you strip away the details, there really aren’t too too many different stories to tell (this plot sounds a little like something I’ve heard before as most movies do), but if it is told well, if it acted well, etc. that makes for a better movie watching experience.

    I am looking forward to the rest of you 99 reviews :)

  • Abby

    Jandy, you did such a great job with this post. I have never even heard of this movie, but you introduced it well and left enough left unknown so that it was not spoiled (not that I’ll probably ever see it, but you never know :) ) I love what you said about “what is the story?” not being as helpful as “how is the story told?” I mean, of course we want a good story, but an excellent story can be ruined by the way it is told. I think how it’s told is definitely more helpful, because when you strip away the details, there really aren’t too too many different stories to tell (this plot sounds a little like something I’ve heard before as most movies do), but if it is told well, if it acted well, etc. that makes for a better movie watching experience.

    I am looking forward to the rest of you 99 reviews :)

  • Abby, thank you! I was writing so off the cuff that I wasn’t sure the post was going to be useful to anybody but me. I actually hadn’t heard of this film until it was on that list. I’m looking forward to finding some real gems by blindly following the list. ;)

    And yes, exactly. There are only so many stories (in this case, boy meets girl, boy goes to war, girl hopes boy makes it home, which is like, every war movie ever), so unless you find something really unconventional, like Stranger than Fiction, which I think had a very original premise, how you tell the story is going to be much more important than the story you tell. The difficulty, of course, is that it’s not usually easy to describe how a story is told. I’m nearly always stymied when people ask me what a film is about (meaning what’s the story). There’s simply no way to do a good film justice in the couple of sentences people expect when they ask that.

  • Abby, thank you! I was writing so off the cuff that I wasn’t sure the post was going to be useful to anybody but me. I actually hadn’t heard of this film until it was on that list. I’m looking forward to finding some real gems by blindly following the list. ;)

    And yes, exactly. There are only so many stories (in this case, boy meets girl, boy goes to war, girl hopes boy makes it home, which is like, every war movie ever), so unless you find something really unconventional, like Stranger than Fiction, which I think had a very original premise, how you tell the story is going to be much more important than the story you tell. The difficulty, of course, is that it’s not usually easy to describe how a story is told. I’m nearly always stymied when people ask me what a film is about (meaning what’s the story). There’s simply no way to do a good film justice in the couple of sentences people expect when they ask that.

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  • What an impressive undertaking. I've attempted to see all the films on the list that I hadn't already seen, but been distracted by health and other issues over the years. Glad you liked Cranes Are Flying as well. I'd never seen it until the list.

  • What an impressive undertaking. I've attempted to see all the films on the list that I hadn't already seen, but been distracted by health and other issues over the years. Glad you liked Cranes Are Flying as well. I'd never seen it until the list.

  • Ha, I wish I could say I hadn't gotten distracted; I think I watched eight or ten and then got distracted by other things. I still intend to go back and watch the ones I haven't seen, but the plan to rewatch the ones I'd already seen is probably not happening. Thank you for collating the list; it's definitely been a great resource.