Around The World In 100 Films – Russia

100WorldFilms - RussiaList Item: Watch films from 100 different nations
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The films of the former Soviet Union were always going to cause some trouble if I were to watch one for this list. It is true that since the split Russia has made a number of successful films but none really match their output before the end of the Cold War.

I have wanted to see The Cranes Are Flying for years but it is one of those films I never managed to get around to watch. I know that the director of the film was born in modern day Georgia but apparently this film was the subject of discussion when the Russian Guild of Film Critics were producing a list of the Best Russian Films from 1908-1957 and whilst some films were removed and assigned elsewhere this remained in place.

thecranesareflyingCountry: Soviet Union (since assigned to Russia)
Title: Летят журавли (The Cranes Are Flying)
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Year: 1957

I am a serial IMDB rater. I have rated every feature length film, miniseries and short film that I have ever seen. Of the nearly 1500 features I have seen only 17 have gotten a perfect 10 rating from me and The Cranes Are Flying is number 18.

So, what does it take for me to give a film a 9 or 10? Well, looking through the films that have attained these ratings (e.g. Sunset Boulevard, Fargo, Spirited Away, Gone With The Wind and All About My Mother) there is something that jumps out. Most of the films I really love has an exceptional performance from a central actress and The Cranes Are Flying may have the best performance I have seen in years by the beautiful Tatyana Samoylova.

The Cranes Are Flying is a film that feels like an epic despite a runtime of little over an hour and a half where we see the life of Veronika (Samoylova) as she becomes separated from Boris (the man who is basically her fiancée) she loves after he volunteers to serve on the front in World War Two. Left behind in civilian territory Veronika serves as a conduit for the film-maker to pour all the pain, loss and other psychological tortures that were experienced by the Soviet populace. It is also interesting to note the utter comempt that a major character has towards the communist system with his derision of the known slogans of meeting and exceeding quotas.

As you would expect this is not a film that sat well with the Soviet government but it captured the imaginations of the critics and audiences in both the USSR and around the world. In Veronika’s sufferings and the brave face she puts on through sheer force of will was created an incredibly well rounded and developed character which any actress would kill to have a chance to play. It truly re-opened the doors of Soviet cinema to the world after the then-recent death of Stalin.

The Cranes Are Flying is in many ways a story about how humans have an innate need to subscribe meaning to atrocity otherwise what is the point of living. This is the only thing that keeps Veronika going through the majority of the film and goes a long way to explain the final scene of the film where she smiles through despair and distributes flowers to the joyous people upon the wars end.

Aside from the outstanding central performance the thing that really stands out about this film is the extraordinary camera work. Tracking shots through war-torn streets and the victory scene in the finale serve to provide insights into the emotions felt by the populace during their brief appearances on screen. The use of a crane at opportune moments such as Veronika walking away from Mark when he confesses her love for her despite his cousin Boris being the one she is with again serves to heighten the distance between them. The best shots in this film make use of a mobile camera; a chase up a spiral staircase, the merging of two spinning images as a soldier dyes and imagines being married and the quick cuts and sped-up shots when there is a fake-out leading us to believe Veronika is about to throw herself in front of a train.

What makes this film all the more tragic, despite the subject content, was the fate of the lead actress. Forced by the Soviet government to refuse jobs outside of the USSR (which came flooding in after the film won the Palme d’Or and she secured a Special Mention at Cannes) her career just floundered. She secured roles here and there but none reached the heights of The Cranes Are Flying although she did take the lead in the 1967 adaptation of Anna Karenina.I just wonder what her career could have been like otherwise, especially after her death only a few weeks ago.

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