The Cranes Are Flying. The horrors of WWII from Russia as cinema circa 1958 playing on the moral ambiguities piercing the Soviet collective psyche still shaken by war with Germany. It is in the great literary tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, taking as its subject the whole classless landscape of the human heart with its ravines of despair and pinnacles of nobility and bypaths of foolishness and delight. The story is a simple pastoral tragedy:
Tricked and confused by the dislocations of war, orphaned by an air raid, the heroine marries a wastrel- draft exempt through chicanery- while her fiance is at the front fighting a bitter war that eventually kills him. Veronica’s guilt is compounded by the fact that Boris, the soldier, and Mark, the slacker, are cousins, and she, living in the heart of the family, must bear the unspoken contempt of Boris’s sister, the disappointment of his forbearing father, the pity of his grandmother.
Through dreadful months of the war in Moscow and in Siberia, she cannot relinquish the hope that Boris is only missing, and it is not until the war is over and the troops return that she can accept the incontrovertible certainty of his death. And having accepted, she now can do nothing, if she is to remain alive, but forgive herself. Thus, at the end, we see her threading her way through the throngs at the railway station, giving away the flowers she has brought for Boris; to reunited lovers, to bearded old men, thrusting wilting daisies into the paws of wartime babies. Her smile bespeaks her renascence.
The film is in black and white, and the chiaroscuro is more effective than if it had been in color. The long shots, such as Veronica and Boris running along the embankment of the Neva, give intricate impressions of distances within and distances beyond. And in the close-ups even at moments of greatest pathos, the eye refrains from watering. That is art- to teach and delight.
But when the announcement of war comes, it is clear that this will be a very different kind of movie. Boris cannot even be roused from his bed, and his cousin Mark’s first thoughts are about how he can wangle an exemption, since the “clever ones” surely should not have to go (Mark is a classical pianist). When Boris enlists, his father, Dr. Borozdin, upset and fearful for his son, seems to agree with Mark’s views. “At the age of 25 to be such a fool,” he laments. Veronika, too, is unhappy with Boris’s decision. Through a misunderstanding, Veronika fails to see Boris off at the station, and as days and weeks pass, neither she nor his family receive any letters. After Veronika’s parents are killed in an air raid, she is taken in by Boris’s family. She is so depressed by her parents’ deaths and her failure to make peace with Boris before his departure that the next time the air raid sirens sound, she refuses to go to the shelter.
At this point, The Cranes Are Flying becomes even more provocative in confounding audience expectations for the genre. As bombs fall in Moscow, Mark takes this opportunity to profess his love for Veronika. Although she resists his embraces and tries to run away, her efforts are fairly feeble. Indeed, as she conveniently faints, Mark carries her off, and the film cuts to a shot of Boris, the first time we have seen him since he left for the army, slogging through the mud on a highly dangerous reconnaissance mission.
Next, Mark and Veronika are shown marrying, which might be expected of an American girl who had lost her “virtue,” but sexual innocence was not particularly prized in Soviet culture, and loss of virginity was not seen as cause for immediate marriage. Therefore, Veronika’s continued passivity in her curious relationship with Mark brands her as much a “defeatist” as her cynical, shirker husband. The announcement of Veronika’s marriage to Mark is followed by the second and final cross-cut to Boris at the front. While attempting to rescue a wounded comrade, he is shot in the back by a sniper. In his dying moments, Boris imagines what his hoped-for wedding to Veronika would have been like.
The war continues; there has been no word of Boris’s death, and Veronika still waits for letters from him. The family—Mark, Veronika, Dr. Borozdin, and Boris’s sister Irina (also a surgeon)—have been evacuated from Moscow to Siberia. Veronika has been working as a nurse in the hospital, which is now receiving wounded men from the front lines at Stalingrad. We see the despair and anguish of the wounded and maimed, none worse than that of a young soldier who has received a “Dear John” letter from his girl. The other men, including Dr. Borozdin, sympathize with him, as Veronika listens in bitter shame: “Girls like that are worse than fascists”; “the shabby-
ted little sneak”; “women like her, we men despise them; there can be no pardon for her.” Veronika, like Anna Karenina before her, intends to bury her guilt under the wheels of a train, but unlike Anna, Veronika does not succeed. Instead, she rescues and adopts a war orphan, who just happens to be named Bor’ka (Boris)….
…This morally ambiguous and psychologically complex picture startled viewers and critics accustomed to the certitudes of socialist realism. The film became part of a wide-ranging social discourse.Veronika is the protagonist, to be sure, but is she a heroine? Where is the moral center of the picture? What has happened to the courage, discipline, and sacrifice that everyone knew to be the foundations of victory? The cranes of the title are symbols of rebirth and hope, but is that enough of a positive message? Soviet films of the past had typically left no questions unanswered, let alone raised issues as troubling as these.Read More:http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/106.3/ah000839.html