We’re grateful first of all to the Library and the Friends of the Library, for making this space available to us; to Charlotte Wray of the News of Orange and Bob Burtman of WHUP for opening up space for us to talk about this project; to the Purple Crow and Triangle on the Cheap and all the businesses around Hillsborough that let us put up posters; to Janus Films (for rescuing us from some stupidity about licenses); and to friends and neighbors who have helped: Merle and Hilary Williams, Bruce Chinery, Stacey Gamble, John Beerman, and so many others without whom, etc.
We’re grateful too to Professor Greg Vitarbo of Meredith who has agreed twice to make short introductions for us, first to Paths of Glory and now to The Cranes Are Flying. With a film of this sort, a film about events so far from our own common experience, some introductory notes are simply essential.
THE FILM The Cranes Are Flying (Летят Журавли) was produced in the Soviet Union in 1957. It is set in Russia during the Second World War, the so-called Great Patriotic War. Soviet Russia was one of the members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—the USSR—and most Soviet films during that era, and up until just after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, were transparent propaganda, glorifying the leadership of the Communist Party and the one-party Soviet state; magnifying the accomplishments of industrialization; and focusing on the everyday life of the worker, generally portrayed as happy and heroic. As the NYT critic Bosley Crowther said in reviewing this film, until this point most Soviet films were “more often given to extolling patriotic fervor and the lovable qualities of hydroelectric plants.” The watchword was socialist realism. All art was subject to censorship; theater and cinema were especially carefully watched because of the influence they were believed to exert over popular opinion.
The Soviet Union was on the winning side of the war, an ally of the United States and Great Britain, but the war was hardly a glorious national victory for the Soviet system. It was in fact a great tragedy for the people of Russia and the surrounding countries, in spite of propaganda to the contrary. Some eight million soldiers, men and women, died (dwarfing the enormous sacrifice of the United States, some 400,000 fatalities,) and perhaps as many as 20 million civilians. Soviet films tended to paper over the hardships caused by the war.
It was only after the death of Stalin that the heavy hand of censorship eased up—not that it ever disappeared entirely—and theaters and cinema companies were given more of a free hand. When the new films appeared, it was said to be like a breath of fresh air sweeping through the theaters. The Cranes Are Flying was the first great film to appear under the new conditions. It was extremely well-received both inside the Soviet Union and abroad. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958.
THE STORY (no spoilers) The story is the story of a young woman, Veronica [Tatiana Samoilova], who is very much in love with a young man, Boris [Aleksey Batalov]. They live in Moscow: Veronica lives with her parents and Boris lives with his family: his father, Fyodor Ivanovich [Vasili Merkuryev], his grandmother (his father’s mother), his sister Irina, and his cousin Mark, a pianist. Boris has a good friend, Stepan. The film begins just before the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany. When the invasion begins, young men and women are called up (or volunteer) to defend their country. Boris and Stepan volunteer and are sent to the front. (Mark has an exemption.) Those who remain in the city are subjected to constant bombardment by German planes, and the citizens are forced to evacuate to Siberia.
THE YOUNG WOMAN: Tatiana Samoilova (1934-2014) The main character, Veronica, was played by Tatiana Samoilova, the great-niece of the director Stanislavsky (the Stanislavsky Method). The critic Chris Fujiwara says that in Samoilova TheCranesAreFlying “unveiled a magnificent screen personality: expressive, sexy, dynamic.” At the Cannes Film Festival she was given a wristwatch by East German fans (East Germany was a communist state within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, remember) with the inscription: "We finally see a face on the Soviet screen, not a mask."
Samoilova was a sensation abroad. In the same year that the film won the Palme d’Or, she won the Best Foreign Actress award at the Jussi Awards (Finland) and the German Film Critics Award for Best Actress. In 1959, she was nominated for Best Foreign Actress at the BAFTA Awards (Britain). She later played the leading role in the 1967 Soviet movie Anna Karenina. She was offered the chance to work in Hollywood and elsewhere in the West but was denied permission to accept those offers.
THE SCREENPLAY The screenplay was written by Victor Rozov (1913-2004). It was based upon his play Eternally Alive, which he wrote early in the war while recovering from wounds he received in battle. The play was banned by the Soviet censorship office in 1942. According to Rozov, “It got a rather nice rejection. The old man who worked in the censorship office said: ‘I read the play you brought us, comrade Rozov, I wept. But it is banned.’ I left satisfied, because the old man cried.” After the war Rozov continued to write, producing mostly children’s plays. It wasn’t until after the death of Stalin that censorship eased up even a little bit, and plays of this sort could be produced.
The play itself was finally produced in 1956 or 1957, and the movie followed shortly after. The movie won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the only Soviet film to do so. As you watch the film you are bound to wonder what in the world could have so worried the censorship office that they would have banned the play. What instructions must the censors have received that required them to ban the play? The answer must in part be that the play did not show the proper reverence toward the Party and the government. Take the scene in the film, for example, when the family is gathered around the kitchen table and Boris is about to leave for the front. Two young girls from the plant where Boris worked bring gifts for him from his fellow workers, and Boris’s father teases them about the patriotic slogans they would be expected to quote in the circumstances. But perhaps more importantly the film does not portray the war as a heroic victory for the Soviet workers. In fact the play and the film, in contrast to other plays and films during the late Stalin era, is not about “the people” at all. It is about two young people, and in particular a young woman, hit hard by the war. THE DIRECTOR: Mikhail Kalatozov (1903-1973)
During the war years Kalatozov made propaganda films for the Soviet government and spent some time as a cultural attaché in the United States. Some time after the death of Stalin he connected with the cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky to make three great films, The Cranes Are Flying, The Unsent Letter (1959), and I Am Cuba (1964). I Am Cuba did not get a great reception, either in Cuba or in the Soviet Union. In 1995 it came to the attention of movie fans in the United States, particularly for Urusevsky’s camera work. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were so impressed with the film that they backed its restoration and re-release in the U.S. THE CINEMATOGRAPHER: Sergei Urusevsky (1908-1974)
Under the dictates of Socialist realism, the scenes in a film were linear, smoothly connected, and easy for the viewer to understand. Urusevsky led the way in breaking the conventions of the time (in fact returning to techniques used by early Soviet greats like Eisenstein.) He had no qualms about alternating between scenes in a way that demands a great deal of the viewer. Much of the shooting in this film was done with a hand held camera, and some of the more memorable scenes are the two long continuous scenes, toward the beginning and toward the end of the film, in which the camera follows Veronica as she rushes through a crowd to find Boris. There is scene in the middle of the film: a wounded soldier falls and we see things from his point of view.