Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Cranes Are Flying

This week's TCM Import, airing overnight at 2:00 AM ET on July 21 (that's still 11:00 PM ET on the 20th on the west coast) is The Cranes Are Flying. It's one of the most stunning movies I've ever seen, and if you don't mind reading subtitles, I think you'll find it stunning too.

The Cranes Are Flying is a Soviet movie from 1957 dealing with World War II. The movie starts shortly before the Nazi German invasion of the USSR in 1941, with Veronika about to become engaged to her boyfriend Boris. Of course, the Germans attack, and everybody mobilizes for war. What Americans may not be able to understand is that war footing for the USSR, a country being significantly occupied, meant something far more complete than it did here in the US, or even in the UK. Whole populations were moved out of larger cities like Leningrad and Moscow to Central Asia (at the same time, Stalin used it as a pretense to deport some ethnic minorities, too), along with the base of industrial production. And just try imagining major cities with barricades, the way Moscow's embankments had (and was accurately and beautifully depicted in the movie). Figures vary, but the number of Soviet dead, combining military and civilian losses, is most likely somewhere in the low eight figures; the high number of military casualities also resulted in a severe demographic imbalance in the generation of people who were of fighting age in 1941. Still, the Soviets won, and World War II, called the "Great Patriotic War" in the former USSR, is celebrated as a bigger triumph than in the rest of the world; May 9 is still the Victory Day national holiday.

It's only natural, then, that when the Germans invade, the people are extremely gung ho about volunteering to fight back, even more than the soldiers in an American movie like From Here to Eternity. Boris enlists, leaving Veronika heartbroken, even if she understands why he's fighting. Director Mikhail Kalatozov expertly displays this, through his use of panning in showing the soldiers, and close-ups on Veronika to show the anguish on her face. Worse for Veronika, after Boris leaves, she never hears from him again -- because he gets killed in action, in a sequence to which stills can't do justice. Not only that, but she's violated by Boris' cousin Mark, a concert pianist who's gotten an artistic exmeption from fighting, so she marries him out of duty despite pining for the Boris she'll never be able to get. Eventually, the Soviets win the war, and amongst the overwhelming joy of all those who get to see their sons, brothers, and husbands return home in a triumphant welcome, Veronika finally discovers that Boris has indeed died. Again we get to see the contrast of emotions. Again, the director effectively uses panning, as Veronika tries to go the opposite way through the crowd, but here the director also refers to allegory: the cranes are flying back over Moscow (hence the title) because it's spring again, with all that spring implies. Well, it's spring for everybody but Veronika.

The fact that The Cranes Are Flying was made in 1957 is important: this was four years after Stalin's death, and one year after Khrushchev's speech to the Communist Party Congress in which he denounced Stalin, leading to a period known as the thaw. During the thaw, artists could cover subjects that would have been taboo previously. Most significantly, of course, is the idea that war isn't simply heroic. Yes, all these soldiers died for the motherland, but that's of no consolation to Veronika, for whom the "Great Patriotic War" means nothing but emptiness. Mark's exemption would have been even more controversial in the USSR than similar exemptions and percieved lack of helping the war effort would have been in the US (as presented in movies like Since You Went Away). And Mark's violation of Veronika? That would have tested the limits of the Hollywood Production Code, never mind what the Communist authorities think. The Cranes Are Flying was an almost immediate classic, winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is just as good now as it was then, and is well worth watching. It's available on DVD, but because it's a foreign film, it falls into the category of films whose less-broad appeal lead to smaller DVD print runs, and the corresponding higher price. Still, I cannot overstress just how highly I rate this movie.

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