Monday 27 June 2016

The Cranes are Flying (Letjat Zhuravli) (1957)

Tranerne flyver forbi
When I think of Soviet films the image I get is of technically adept films marred by a heavy dose of propaganda. Movies intended to bolster the moral of the local population with the grace of a bulldozer. With that in mind “Letyat zhuravli” or “ The Cranes are Flying” is a very positive surprise.

Yes, it is a technically adept film. In fact the best reason to watch this movie is to enjoy the very mobile camera and the interesting photography done here. This is not, as my late friend Chip would call it, shaky-cam, but filming with a presence as if we are really there. For 1957 this is very advanced, if not revolutionary. 

However the surprise lies in the story and the picture it paints of Soviet life during the war. Instead of heroic working class heroes fighting and winning over German vermin we watch the suffering of the individuals left behind at home. Note the use of “individuals” rather than the collective. They are families reluctant to send their sons to war, there is relocation to Siberia and corrupt apparatchiks using their influence to protect the privileged for money and favors. And the heroes in the war just dies totally random and not very heroic deaths, stray bullets in a swamp, trying to get away from the fighting. This is certainly not what I expected, but it is most definitely far closer to reality than most of what the Soviet public was fed with at the time.

I also found it curious that the family we follow is a doctor’s family belonging to the upper middle class. This most reviled class in the communist narrative is here pictured as essential and necessary and just as much a part of the suffering and ultimate victory in the war. Okay, they are not factory owners or hardcore capitalist, but they live a privileged life with a Steinway piano in a beautiful home and yet the Soviet audience will see them as a member of their reality.

All this is most interesting in its own right, but also from a modern perspective does this movie have something to offer us. The characters, in particularly Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova), the lead character, goes through an unusual story arc. From a largely irresponsible and dreamy character pre-war she has to go through a transition imposed by brutal reality. How that transition acts out is to give the movie away, but where a normal arc would make her grow up and become responsible she first dives into self-loathing, then grasps for feeble hope only to be dashed by reality. This is not a happy ending movie and you would not see this type of movie come out of Hollywood in the fifties and still there is an odd satisfaction in the way it turns out. Veronica does not grow tough, rather the opposite, but she carries the cross of those who lost in the war and that is beautiful.

“The Cranes are Flying” won Palme D’or in 1958 and I understand why. These are exactly the qualities that work in Cannes. It was also one of the rare movies to be widely circulated outside of the Soviet Union and that is an achievement in its own right considering the McCarthy era politics.

If I should point at a negative then I think it is a shame that the acting qualities aside from Ms. Samoilova are not up to the quality of the filming and the plot. That and a probably insufficient script means that the movie at time feels forced and acted, which is totally at odds with the very realism of the filming. But that is nit-picking on an otherwise excellent movie.

I am happy that Soviet film moved on from poor transition to talkies (I am looking at you, Eisenstein) and have hopes that future Russian entries on the List can live up to this standard.


  1. I see this as a Russian version of Mrs. Miniver or Since You Went Away. It's probably one I should hit again one of these days.

    1. That comparison is fitting. Mrs. Miniver with better photography.