13th June 2020
First, a thank you to Darrel over at ‘A World Of Films’:
Darrel lists his (current) top ten films, and topping the list was this Soviet film which I hadn’t seen. So I started searching online, and the clips I saw were so mesmerising, so dazzling, the reviews so laudatory, I had to see it. I began with a review:
This introduction gives context and commentary on the film, as well as placing the film in relation to other noteworthy examples of Russian or Soviet cinema.
Despite only finding short, two-minute excepts with English text, I wasn’t going to be deterred. Instead, I decided to read the synopsis on Wikipedia:
and then watch the original Russian version sans subtitles. I’ve recently been considering how cinema should (could) be told, and how so much exposition text is actually needed, how much text, in fact, is needed. As F.W. Murnau has beautifully shown in ‘The Last Laugh’ (1924), a film, a great film can be told without any need for dialogue or title cards. But that, as they say, is for another blog …
I will briefly relate the plot, then what attracted me to the film.
SPOILER ALERT: in order to highlight the creative camerawork and staging, the plot details need to be mentioned.
Boris and Veronika are young sweethearts, staying out late and risking family censure by sneaking home, trying not to wake their parents.
However, when the Germans invade Russia, Boris, along with his close friend Stepan, join up. Boris has to catch a train to get to his battalion and Veronika rushes to say goodbye, but the crowds are so thick, she has no hope of seeing him. In vain, she throws her gift, but it falls and breaks on the ground. This clearly foreshadows the fate of their romance; they will never meet again.
Meanwhile, the War comes to the city, and Veronika’s parents are killed during an air raid. With nowhere else to go, Boris’ family take her in and during another air raid, with the living room symbolically shaken, glass shattered, Boris’ younger brother, Mark, sexually assaults Veronika. Her shame compels her to marry Mark, to the disdain and contempt of the family.
With the German advance, the Russians are moved eastwards. We see both the mounting Russian casualties and the sorry sordid state of the sham marriage.
Veronika is told that Boris is dead and runs frantically, racing a train under which she plans to throw herself … yet a young boy, who we later learn is also called Boris, diverts her attention, and she takes him home.
The film ends with Veronika waiting at the train station for the victorious Soviet soldiers to return. Amidst all the tearful reunions, Veronika meets Stephan; he confirms that Boris is indeed dead. Veronika is again denied any further contact by the sheer force of the crowd, her tears of heartbreak juxtaposed against the tears of happiness. As at the beginning, she looks up and sees, in a V-formation, the cranes flying.
I love the idea of the camera-stylo – the camera being able to move as freely as a pen, the director (and cinematographer, art-director, the whole team) being able to put their personalities on to the film so that by a mere shot or two we can detect a Hitchcock from a Hawks, a Kurosawa from an Ozu, a Godard from a Truffaut. Naturally, this will later clash with Roland Barthes’ essay, ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967) … again, for another blog.
I love the idea of a camera being free, released from the constrains of the studio, allowed to move and as it were, to breathe. From an actor’s point of view, it could be different, with concerns about hitting exact marks at exact times, instead of focusing purely on the performance (yes, another blog), but as a viewer, as a lover of cinema, ‘The Cranes Are Flying’ features some breathe-taking shots and said shots add meaning to the film … they are not mere decoration. Take this shot:
Veronika is so close to her goal yet blocked … and she had no where to turn, she is trapped, confined. This next still can’t capture the circular spinning of the camera, whirling up the stairs, as their hearts whirl with love, happiness and hope … none of which will last.
Then we have the crowd scenes … and what scenes … the camera is like a character, bustling and elbowing its way through, between people, around vehicles, forcing its way off buses or onto trains.
I hope you enjoy it
Allez, ciao !