Letyat Zhuravli (Летят журавли, The Cranes Are Flying)
Criterion Collection DVD
Russia, 1957, 97 minutes, Black and White
Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov
Cast: Tatiana Samoilova (Veronika, "Squirrel"), Alexei Batalov (Boris), Vasili Merkuryev (Fyodor Ivanovich), Aleksandr Shvorin (Mark), Svetlana Kharitonova (Irina)
Plot: "Veronika and Boris are blissfully in love, until the eruption of World War II tears them apart. Boris is sent to the front lines...and then communication stops. Meanwhile, Veronica tries to ward off spiritual numbness while Boris' draft-dodging cousin makes increasingly forceful overtures."
Awards: Winner of Best Film and Best Actress awards the Palme d'Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.
I picked this up based strictly on the cover, which had a close-up of an attractive Slav femme (Tatiana Samoilova, aka Tayana Samoylova and Татья́на Евге́ньевна Само́йлова):
Like Godard said, all you need to make a movie is a girl (he had Anna Karina) and a gun, and this had both - with plenty of guns, being set in WWII. By the way, I liked that the girl's nickname in the film was "Squirrel" (Belka) - a toy squirrel containing a note from her lover figures prominently in the film's narrative. According to the liner notes, this was one of the first postwar Soviet films to get any kind of airing outside the USSR, and for Russians it's apparently always been a sentimental fave, which makes sense given its plot that's straight out of the Great Historical Russian Novel playbook - you know, the tragic love story set against an epic backdrop, the lovers separated by war, the great WWII nationalism in the face of the villainous German invaders...but what grabbed me instantly was the beautiful black and white cinematography of cameraman Sergei Urusevsky, the Human Steadicam. It starts with that jaw-dropping, seamless, swirling shot of Boris (Alexei Batalov, aka Aleksey Batalov, who later starred in 1979's Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears) running up the stairs at Veronika's apartment building that makes me dizzy just thinking about it. Then there's that mad dash through the bustling crowds and tank-lined streets of Moscow as Veronika frantically tries to catch Boris before he heads off to war, highlighted by Veronika running up a stairway in a sped-up sequence that creates a flurry of motion matching her emotional turmoil. And the later scene at the front when Boris is shot and as he falls the screen dissolves to a flashback of him ascending the stairs in Veronika's apartment house. Pure eye candy.
Train in Vain: Veronika chases after her man
Of scenes like these, Urusevsky explained that "The camera can express what the actor is unable to portray: his inner sensations. The camera must act with the actors." Or, as DVD Times' Michael Brooke raved:
Technically, the film is absolutely astonishing, and not just for its era – Sergei Urusevsky’s mobile camerawork predates the invention of the Steadicam by some two decades, but you’d never know it from the way it swoops and glides from scene to scene, moving from long-shot to decidedly Wellesian neo-Expressionist low-angle close-up in the same take. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that director Mikhail Kalatozov started out in the silent era, where mastery of the technique of purely visual narration was much more necessary than it was after actors started talking.
And in his excellent DVD liner notes, Chris Fujiwara writes the following about the Mikhail Kalatozov-Sergei Urusevsky collaboration:
"The two men's joint body of work deserves to be considered as one of the great multi-film director-cinematographer collaborations, no less innovative and fertile than those of William Wyler and Gregg Toland, Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist, and Jean-Luc Godard and Raoul Coutard."
Now I have to seek out their much-heralded "visual extravaganza" I Am Cuba (1964).
I liked this film a lot because buried beneath its surface plot of nationalism and heroism in the face of invasion (with that hokey ending that has Boris' soldier friend proclaim to the masses, "We have won, and we shall live not to destroy, but to build a new life!”), Kalatozov made a personal statement about the tragedy of human loss. It's captured for the ages on Veronika's face in that final scene when it finally hits her that Boris isn't coming home.
Funny coincidence the next day at work...I was on the phone helping a woman with a Russian-sounding name (c'mon - how many non-Russians are named Olga?) and I asked her if she had seen this movie. I attempted to say its title in Russian and she actually understood me! She responded enthusiastically, "Yes, this is very famous film in my country. And Alexei Batalov [also spelled Aleksey Batalov], he is my favorite actor. His family very famous, his brother was a writer and his father, yada yada yada."
Russian screen icon Alexei Batalov
She promised to bring me in a biography of this actor, who was acclaimed for his portrayal of noble and positive characters and was named People's Artist of the USSR in 1976 and Hero of Socialist Labor in 1989 and had Boris Yeltsin present the Lifetime Achievment Nika Award to him in 2002. Small world. Who knew? Once again, the cinematic art breaks down barriers and brings people together in a common understanding.