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“The Cranes are Flying”: Hope Amidst War

By Henri Oo

Although the average Snider High school student presumably hasn’t seen many films from Eastern Europe, it is interesting to understand the significance of Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 contribution to Georgian and Russian cinema. Kalatozov’s “The Cranes are Flying” is regarded as one of most well-known Soviet films outside of the former Soviet Union, being critically acclaimed for its realism, and for being patriotic while still containing its humanism. It was also praised for its direction, cinematography and acting.

The film is focused on Veronika, a young woman who is in love with Boris. The young couples’ happiness becomes challenged when Boris volunteers to fight in World War II. Throughout the movie, the audience watches Veronika suffer from the loss of her parents, and a guilt-induced marriage to Mark, Boris’s cousin.

This movie is similar to Italian neorealism films, which are recognized for their depiction of economic hardships and harsh living conditions that were brought by the Second World War. These films picture the devastating effects of war physically, mentally and spiritually. This counters the elaborate and lavish escapism that Hollywood had provided in the 30s and 40s, which were often criticized for their lack of realism. The settings and characters are more realistic, resembling average citizens instead of one-dimensional stock characters. Kalatozov captures the true lives of civilians during the war time. One of the great things about “The Cranes are Flying” is the raw, emotional performances the cast delivers, notably Tatiana Samoilova, who is one of the greatest actresses in Russian cinematic history.

Under the rule of Nikolai Kruschev, Soviet films were able to be produced without the fear of heavy censorship and without being made solely for the purpose of creating political propaganda. Although there are many works under Stalin’s reign that weren’t based on Stalinism, the medium was heavily saturated on propaganda – so much so that even after his death his influence was still powerful. Kalatozov’s film was refreshing, withdrawing from extreme ideals and focusing on raw human nature that screamed anti-war. By the 60s, the influence of socialist realism – the glorification of communist values – started to wane.

Veronika is a representation of women in the Soviet Union and how they were affected by World War II. In one disturbing event it is implied that Mark rapes Veronika during an air raid. Later, upon hearing it, Boris’s family is ashamed of her, which guilts her into marrying Mark. Throughout the film we witness Veronika progressively losing hope in living and becoming suicidal. Viewers not only learn about the damage of war on the psyche, but also the inequality in the treatment of women, such as victim-blaming. Pain is universal. A person did not have to live in WWII era Soviet Union to understand and empathize with the pain Veronika endures. Upon its release, Soviet and Western audiences alike were touched with Samoilova’s character, bringing two worlds together with the medium of film.

Unsurprisingly, “The Cranes are Flying” is anything but a feel-good movie. Like many war or anti-war films, it doesn’t shy away from the true nature of war. The film ends on a bittersweet note, honoring the great number of lives lost in the war. Cranes in the end of the film hold importance to the film. Cranes are a symbol of longevity and good luck. In the movie they represent the lives that were lost in WWII that continue to live on after death so people can remember and love them.

The final moment captures the overall theme of remembering the lost and finding hope in the darkest of times. The movie doesn’t praise nor mention communism: it focuses solely on Soviet civilians and soldiers themselves. By the end of the war, the Soviet Union suffered approximately over 20 million casualties; 7.4 million of those deaths were from civilians. It is a homage to the nation’s strong people.

This movie is a must-watch and a tear-jerker. Kalatozov perfectly crafted a masterpiece that takes social realism to a whole new level. Created during the height of the Cold War, “The Cranes are Flying” will without a doubt move you to tears no matter where you’re from.

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