1956: War Films

The Cranes are Flying

Subject essay: James von Geldern

Soviet movie-goers had plenty to weep about in post-war years, but precious little of what they saw on screens touched the deep wounds left by the war. Most films pretended as if it never happened, showing a world of peace and plenty in which men and women formed healthy families. Notorious here would be Ivan Pyriev's musical spectacular, Cossacks of the Kuban (1948). Russian men and women behaved honorably, fought courageously, endured silently, and obeyed wordlessly in such films. The rare film that dealt with the war would more likely than not focus on the leaders, not the soldiers, leaving common viewers with no reflection of their experience. Culminating this trend were two films of 1950, The Battle of Stalingrad, directed by Vladimir Petrov, and The Fall of Berlin, directed by the Georgian Mikhail Chuareli. The latter film was set almost entirely in Stalin's command post in the Kremlin.

Director Mikhail Kalatazov gave viewers the gift of his Cranes are Flying in 1957, a visually powerful and emotionally rewarding story of young woman's attempt to live her life during the war. The lyrical and tender love story opening in Moscow in the days before war struck, presents full-blooded characters and moral dilemmas. The heroine Veronika was wrong for Soviet cinema; capricious, untamed, self-centered, she is also capable of great self-sacrifice. Played by Tat'iana Samoilova, daughter of the great acting family, she was paired with Aleksei Batalov, himself scion of an acting tradition. His noble character Boris, son of a doctor, volunteers for the front immediately, and loses his life as the unguided army stumbles toward Moscow in retreat. This leaves Veronika to the arms of his cousin Mark, a spoiled pianist incapable of sacrifice or love. Although the movie chronicles the failure of Soviet leadership in the first days of war, shows people whose sole concern is themselves, and even delves into such topics as the wartime black market, it did so free of moralizing or political harangues. Coupled with stunning black-and-white photography and daring editing unseen since the innovative 1920s, the movie was memorable for Soviet viewers, and enough so to carry away the Golden Palm at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.

Honor of being the first film to break postwar taboos went to the far more modest The Soldier Ivan Brovkin (1955), directed by Ivan Lukinskii and ignored by film historian. Essentially a story about a nice young Russian boy drafted into the war, the film de-elevated the war film to a level accessible to common viewers, without challenging them to confront its pain. Played by Leonid Kharitonov, whose lyrical performance of several songs from the movie made him an all-soviet heart throb, Brovkin opened the way for more adventurous films. Similar in story line but very different in treatment was the 1959 film Ballad of a Soldier, directed by Grigorii Chukhrai, which uses the tale of a young soldier on leave from the war to convey its futility and tragedy.