Blu-ray Review: THE CRANES ARE FLYING Takes Off as Criterion Blu-ray Upgrade

Re-release of classic Soviet melodrama arrives more brilliantly than ever.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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Blu-ray Review: THE CRANES ARE FLYING Takes Off as Criterion Blu-ray Upgrade

To come out of the gate pronouncing Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 World War II Soviet Homefront drama The Cranes Are Flying (Letyat zhuravli) as one of the finest films ever made might be an accurate assessment, but it wouldn’t necessarily be bringing anything new to its conversation.  

Anyone who’s had the good fortune to have seen The Cranes Are Flying will immediately recall its potent blend of deeply personal young love blended absolutely with some of the most assured virtuosic visuals ever committed to film.  As the main characters Veronika and Boris navigate their deep and perfect passion on the brink of war, the camera dances, spins, studies and untethers them from their established bliss, and one another.  

It’s a revolutionary approach for any film circa 1957, particularly a Soviet production.  And director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky make it look so easy...

The story really is as simple as it sounds (which, for the record, is almost never a bad thing in cinema).  Boasting a screenplay by Viktor Rozov that’s adapted from his own play, we follow Veronika and Boris from their early blissful times (in a Moscow that’s literally all their own), to him being drafted into military service against the Germans, to their very different lives apart.  

As Veronika and Boris, actors Tatyana Samoylova and Aleksey Batalov are perfectly cast.  She embodies female depth and painfully contained longing while he embodies righteous virtue and selflessness.  They both communicate their character’s driving love for the other with palpable magnetism and true sympathy.  From these roles, they would become Soviet cinema icons.  

As is made clear in the nice array of bonus features added to this new Blu-ray edition of Criterion’s previous barebones DVD release of The Cranes Are Flying, there were two geniuses at work behind the camera on this film.  For one of them, director Mikhail Kalatozov, The Cranes Are Flying proved to be a decades-in-coming return to form.  That form being, the kind of intimate expressionism not unlike his 1930 effort Salt for Svanetia or his banned 1931 follow-up, Nail in the Boot.  All it took for Kalatozov to return to such a stride was the death of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.  

Stalin green-lit films that portrayed the triumph of the heroic communist and/or the bountiful though altogether fictional farmers’ fields being harvested in the majestic glow of the sun.  With the “de-Stalinization” under the subsequent leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the doorway was opened for filmmakers to explore more personal and honest things.  

Some might say that even during the height of Stalin’s dictatorial grip, Kalatozov still found ways to imbue his films with aspects of the personal.  But in 1957, no one was prepared for the aging, even written-off filmmaker to set forth something as tragic and hard-hitting as The Cranes Are Flying.

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A major part of what makes The Cranes Are Flying so effective is the work of the film’s undisputed second great genius, cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky.  Urusevsky brings with him the clout and ability to visually realize one breathtakingly complex sequence after another.  

Starting with a particularly stunning and dizzying floating ascent up the center of a long staircase (it’s the camera crane that’s flying here), and even before that, every single scene is marked with at least one noteworthy flourish.  Working in harmonious concert with Kalatozov, there’s an appropriate soft touch to Urusevsky’s greyscale photography, but also a surprisingly accomplished bit of melodramatic expressionism ala both classic Hollywood and 1920s Germany.  

When a bombing raid interrupts the intense piano playing of Veronika’s unwanted and cowardly suitor Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), the two are hurled together horrifically as curtains billow wildly, slaps are thrown, and the whole moment spins into something not out of place in a Murnau nightmare sequence.  It is just one such unforgettable moment among many.

The newly introduced supplements on this long-awaited reissue (utilizing new a Mosfilm 2K transfer) are long in coming, though some of them didn’t even exist at the time of Criterion’s initial 2002 DVD release.  They are:

•           New interview with scholar Ian Christie on why the film is a landmark of Soviet cinema

•           Audio interview from 1961 with director Mikhail Kalatozov

•           Hurricane Kalatozov, a documentary from 2009 on the Georgian director’s complex relationship with the Soviet government

•           Segment from a 2008 program about the film’s cinematography, featuring original storyboards and an interview with actor Alexei Batalov

•           Interview from 2001 with filmmaker Claude Lelouch on the film’s French premiere at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival

•           New English subtitle translation

•           PLUS: An essay by critic Chris Fujiwara

If there are any newer angles to offer to a discussion of The Cranes Are Flying, it’s likely enmeshed in these bonus features.  They are all worth one’s time in perusing, particularly 2009’s Hurricane Kalatozov, which at seventy-four minutes, constitutes a second feature film on this disc.  

The documentary details the entire career of the director, complete with clips of most of the films, with special attention paid to his three collaborations with Urusevsky, of which Cranes is the first. The other two being 1960’s Letter Never Sent and 1964’s I Am Cuba.  

Of all of it, however, The Cranes Are Flying is proclaimed on more than one occasion as the best of the best.  It may not be a new notion, as this is one of those revered films that books have been written about and in its day won every award it could.  But the thing is, even all these years later, it still earns its esteemed place in the cinematic pecking order. 

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