It's not difficult, after watching this film, to see why post-silent Soviet cinema is held in such little critical esteem. Don't get me wrong. THE CRANES ARE FLYING is, for the first half at least, supremely entertaining, boasting a lightness of touch completely unexpected from its country of origin; a fresh, brisk, spacious technique that eventually irritates as much as it initially charms; two stunning subjective set-pieces; and a romantic verve that flirts with, but never quite topples into, Lelouch territory. It's just that , in its subsuming of vast social, national and world events to a love affair, it is essentially no different from a conventional Hollywood movie.
Of course, in a Soviet Union that emphasised the state above all else, and in an era (World War Two) that suppressed individualism and liberty to uphold murderous symbolism, this foregrounding of two appealing young lovers is a relief. And the thematic similarities - all consuming love rent apart by war - with two of the most wonderful of all films (SEVENTH HEAVEN, LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG) also adds to its potential loveability.
The story is simple enough. Boris, a young factory worker from a bright medical and artistic family, and Veronika, a student, conduct a breezy relationship at night, their only free time. Boris's cousin Mark, a composer, also has eyes on Veronika. When the Nazis invade Russia, Boris secretly volunteers, to the chagrin of his family and lover. He promises to write to Veronika, but never does, thinking maybe she hasn't bothered to see him off, or perhaps the mail is simply unreliable. Veronika's parents die during an air raid, and she moves in with Boris's family, helping out at the hospital where his father tends wounded soldiers.
Distressed by Boris's silence, Veronika is also assailed by the attentions of Mark, who has gained exemption from military duty by bribing a local official. She is eventually worn down, and marries him, to the disapproval of her adopted family. Boris, meanwhile, is killed in action. Veronika, disgusted with herself and an adulterous Mark, refuses to believe this, and awaits his return, fostering a young orphan bearing his name.
The title refers to the birds the couple see at the height of their love, symbolic perhaps of its transcendant, epiphanical power. But this is illusory - the cranes fly in a V formation, and this shape pervades the entire film, through the geometric shapes of buildings, interiors, exteriors, groupings of people, composition, camera angles, the heroine's name - or by editing in which feet walking southwest in one story are met by feet walking southeast in another.
This serves to fatally trap the lovers who have no control over their destinies, and also suggest the Stalinist power that is never, specifically, mentioned in the film. Although the pair seem to be free in space, whether literally in an unpeopled environment, or privileged in generous close-ups, they are always ironised, minimised, torn apart - by circumstances, families, by crowds (see the brilliant, if obvious, sequences where Veronika is engulfed by tanks, or the pair fail to meet in a huge crowd), or simply by the film's structure, which is constantly distancing, through paralellism, their closeness. Although at the beginning, the lightness and brightness of style suggest a beautiful romantic idyll, it is constantly being broken by strange edits or camera angles of distracting snatches of music.
What is most remarkable is how these blocks to romance are achieved by abstracting rather than emphasising historical forces. The whole film, but especially the war itself, is strangely unreal and dreamlike, we are never shown its harsh, brutal actuality, just its effects on the lovers. In fact, it is transformed into a majestic spectacle, devoid of nasty Germans.
On the home front, the air raids create delicious effects of light and shade, or ruins of almost Gothic decadence. In the bunker, the threat to the Soviet empire is less important than Boris's perceived indifference. The empty, oneiric Moscow spaces the lovers initially, than Veronika with her mother, walk though are less actual locations than emotional spaces.
When Mark tries to force himself on Veronika, the air raid is less a destructive reality than a symbolic release of sexual and emotional frustrations. This is a brilliant sequence, filmed with silent, Expressionistic terror, in which the screen seems to burst with hysteria and violence, all the more compelling for the earlier scenes' wistful gentleness.
It's not much different at the front either, where fights over girls' honour are more urgent than tactics, Nazis or despair. The movement of Boris and his wounded comrade into a final space is a further abstracting of the experience of war, its setting in a forest giving it a sexual dynamic; and Boris' final, pre-death flashback is an extraordinary mixture of dream-wish fulfillment and heightened anxiety, in which what is wished for becomes menacing and grotesque.
From this point on the film becomes a little less interesting, slightly more obvious. One more grasp for Expressionist overload - Veronika's attempted suicide and her rescuing the infant - is clumsily handled; and her sombre guilt casts a paralysing shadow over the whole film. The use of deep focus, at first ravishing, soon becomes wearing, devoid as it is of any of the moral force or meaning Welles brought to its use in CITIZEN KANE. After what seems a quietly sly critique of totalitarianism in favour of the individual is cruelly betrayed at the end, when individual suffering, as so often in Russian art, transmutes into symbolic (i.e. sexless, dehumanised) hope. A pity.
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