Humanising the Soviet Subject: Letiat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying)

When Letiat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying) was released in late 1957, it came as a revelation to audiences both within the Soviet Union and beyond.  Domestically, the film liberated viewers with its honest and unheroic depiction of World War II – the first ever of its kind. Internationally, it surprised moviegoers with the seeming “unsovietness” of both its content and its form. The film’s protagonists were not heroes of labour or paragons of socialist civic virtue, but rather ordinary people caught up in the maelstrom of World War II. “Believe it or not,” film critic Bosley Crowther noted sardonically in the New York Times, “it is a picture about two young people romantically in love – in love with each other, that is, and not with a tractor or the Soviet state.” 1

Indeed, the emotional core of the film lies in the romantic relationship between Boris (Alexei Batalov) and Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova), a young engineer and a student living in Moscow. There is nothing exceptional about either of them – nothing, that is, except their shared sensitivity, spontaneity, and sincerity. It is these qualities that endear them to us in the first, joyful scenes of the film and allow us to experience the irruption of the war as a violation not only of the peaceful world order but also of their personal idyll. Overly decent and responsible, Boris enlists in the Soviet army immediately after the German invasion is announced, without waiting to be called up. Not surprisingly, he is among the first to die – but is reported to his family as missing in action. Veronica, in turn, suffers a series of traumas: the traffic and crowds in the streets prevent her from reaching Boris to say goodbye as he leaves for the front; her parents perish in a bomb raid; Boris’s letters stop coming; finally, during yet another bomb raid, she is raped by Boris’s cousin Mark (Alexander Shvorin), and out of guilt, exhaustion, or sheer inertia, agrees to marry him.

In essence, then, the narrative structure of the film is that of Veronica’s fall and redemption. In the first half of the film, she is perceived by those around her as having committed the worst offence women on the home front could commit – infidelity to a soldier. The second half then traces her re-awakening from her emotional stupor and her social and spiritual rehabilitation. Like many great works of art, Cranes does not shy away from quoting the classics. In this case, the references are all Tolstoyan: the narrative structure, as well as Veronica’s candour, recall the fall and redemption of Natasha Rostova in War and Peace, just as Veronica’s later attempt to commit suicide by jumping off a railway bridge is a direct allusion to Anna Karenina. (Coincidentally, Samoilova would go on to play Karenina in the 1967 adaptation by Aleksandr Zarkhi.)

Viewers unfamiliar with Soviet cinema might be surprised to encounter a film which focuses in such detail on the female experience of the war. Within the canon of war films which had formed by 1957, however, this was not uncommon. In her masterful study of Cranes, Josephine Woll points out that two-thirds of the films produced by Soviet studios during the war itself were “war films”, and that the most successful of these centred on female protagonists. 2 She lists Friedrich Ermler’s Ona zashchishchaet rodinu (She Defends the Motherland, 1943), Mark Donskoi’s Raduga (The Rainbow, 1943), Lev Arnshtam’s Zoya (Zoya, 1944) and Sergei Gerasimov’s Bol’shaya Zemlya (The Great Land, 1944) as prime examples. 3  The key difference, of course, is that the women in all these films were presented as positive, almost saint-like, models of wartime heroism. All but the last endure unimaginable horrors and give up their lives for their country. Grigori Chukhrai’s Sorok pervyi (The Forty-first, 1956) attempted to introduce some nuance into this idealised image, but it was ultimately Cranes that marked a radical departure from tradition in presenting a woman who was taken to be unfaithful, whose endurance had limits, and who was much more concerned with her own immediate, affective world than with the fate of the nation.

What is more, the film refused either to explain her behaviour or to judge it. The screenplay was adapted by Kalatozov from a play entitled Vechno zhivye (alternately translated as Eternally Alive or Alive Forever) by Victor Rozov, with the playwright’s assistance. In the process, the duo trimmed all excess verbiage, including overly sentimental statements and instances of inner monologue. Kalatozov’s intent, from the outset, was to make a film where the image would prime over the spoken word, and where characters’ internal states would be expressed using cinematic rather than literary means. Consequently, characters’ motivations are never spelled out; instead, the viewer must infer them from the acting and the expressive camerawork of master cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky. The moral implication of this approach is that Veronica owes no explanation – to us as viewers, or to Soviet society.

The sense that the film champions Veronica’s right to make mistakes and live her life as she sees fit is shaped as much by the script as by the cinematography. As Soviet critic Maia Turovskaia noted, “When you leave the theatre, you don’t know whether the image of Veronica owes her charm to […] Samoilova’s talent and sincerity or to Urusevsky’s art, able to catch in the turn of a head, a momentary pose, the blink of eyelashes, the helplessness and obstinacy, the tenderness and pride of this particular woman’s character.”4 In all of the film’s most emotionally charged scenes – when Veronica rushes to her parents’ apartment only to discover that it no longer exists, when she flees from Mark’s advances, and when she runs to the railway bridge intent on throwing herself off – the camera stays close to her body, its movements and the editing imitating her feverish pace. In so doing, the camera involves us as viewers: we are both physically with her, and on her side.

The Cranes Are Flying

Veronica stands on the precipice of what used to be her parents’ apartment.

What truly set Cranes apart, then, was that its iconoclastic approach extended to form as well as content. As readers may have already gathered, the camera in Cranes is exceptionally mobile. Some of the film’s most remarkable scenes are those which begin with the camera in close-up on Veronica and then seamlessly pull up and out to reveal her moving across large, open spaces or weaving her way through a dense crowd. This is most notably the case in the two symmetrical scenes which show the soldiers departing for, and returning from, the front. The departure scene opens with a close-up on Veronica inside a bus that is slowing down. She pokes her head in and out of the bus window in an attempt to assess the situation, then decides to step off and continue on foot. Instead of cutting, the camera executes a 180-degree turn to follow her out of the bus and into the crowd. The camera then continues, presumably on a dolly, to follow her from some distance as she weaves her way through the throng. Finally, it moves up into a crane shot that reveals Veronica recklessly rushing across a procession of tanks in order to reach the other side of the street. Not a single cut interrupts the action.

The Cranes Are Flying

Veronica runs across a procession of tanks in her attempt to reach Boris before he leaves for the front.

Asked in 2011 to name an image which has affected his work, famed American cinematographer Haskell Wexler chose precisely this scene from Cranes, and it is easy to see why. 5 Despite the masterfully controlled camera movements, the scene has a distinctly documentary quality no doubt inherited from Kalatozov’s training: in the late 1920s, the director had cut his teeth in the genre, earning some early fame with the documentary Sol’ dlia Svanetii (Salt for Svanetia, 1930). This scene and many others in the film also belie the influence of Italian neorealism on Soviet directors in the post-war period, and one cannot help but see an echo here of Pina’s fateful run down the crowd-lined street in Roma cittá aperta (Rome, Open City, Roberto Rossellini, 1945).

Kalatozov and Urusevsky do not stop here, however. Their genius lies in the film’s daring yet judicious oscillation between an objective and subjective camera. The swirling shots and superimpositions used in Boris’ dying vision as well as the canted angles and high-contrast lighting of the rape scene are highly subjective and derive from German Expressionism. (Shot from a low angle approximating Veronica’s point of view here, Mark looks every inch Cesare, the Somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.) Yet in other scenes, as when Mark announces their intention to marry, the camera remains objective and still, simply registering the event. Except for a few high-octane moments that feature music by Moisey Vaynberg, the sound is primarily diegetic and does not get in the way of editing and cinematography.

The Cranes Are Flying

Mark looms over Veronica


The end result was that critics praised the film lavishly for its variations in tempo and speed, from “almost static observations of a domestic scene to a sudden swift crescendo of movement.”6 Crowther saw in this blend of approaches “Pudovkin and Dovzhenko […] brought up to date to blend with sound and the overlapping idioms of modern screen reportage,” while John Beaufort of The Christian Science Monitor extolled its refreshing combination of “realism and lyricism”. 7  For Woll, this approach had ideological consequences as well. Throughout her study she insists on the film’s “romantic sensibility,” which she defines as “its validation of the supremacy of feeling” as an “alternative to officially enshrined values.” 8

That such a morally and aesthetically complex film could even have been made in 1957 spoke to the fundamental nature of the changes that were under way in Soviet society in the wake of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress the previous year. One aspect of these changes had to do with the nation’s experience of World War II. During the war, representations of the conflict were needed for propaganda purposes. Between the end of the war in 1945 and Stalin’s death in 1953, however, a de facto ban was imposed on all non-official representation of the war. Only government-sanctioned and highly idealised images, films, and literature were allowed to circulate.

Khrushchev’s “secret speech” set in motion a general, if short-lived period of liberalisation that would become known as the “Thaw”. As part of that speech, Khrushchev also acknowledged that Stalin had committed grave mistakes during the war that ended up costing millions of Soviet lives. As word of this filtered down to society at large, it opened the flood gates to an outpouring of repressed experience. Soviet citizens, authors, and filmmakers felt empowered to speak of the war not only as a moment when the great Soviet nation proved its mettle, but as a moment of individual and collective trauma. Cranes was not the first film to re-evaluate the war from this perspective, but it was the most daring and the most successful, paving the way for masterpieces such as Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, Grigori Chukhrai1959) and Ivanovo Detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky 1962).

The film also became an important showpiece for the new Soviet cinema abroad. In 1958 it won the Golden Palm at Cannes and enjoyed extensive distribution in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia. In 1959-1960 Cranes was one of seven films selected as part of a landmark cultural exchange between the US and the USSR. The film was distributed by Warner Bros at the request of the US Department of State, and played at New York’s Fine Arts Theater immediately following the run of The 400 Blows. 9  American newspapers championed the film’s anti-war message and its “universal themes”. 10 Samoilova was compared to Audrey Hepburn and praised for her “subtle beauty” and “exquisite tenderness.” 11 Although the film would eventually be chastised at home for going too far and falling under the sway of modernism and formalism, perhaps it can best be remembered as a work of art that bridged the Cold War divide, proving that the Soviets were, in the words of the Manchester Guardian, “human beings,” too. 12

The Cranes Are Flying

Veronica, amidst the crowd greeting returning soldiers, finally accepts that Boris is never coming back


  1. Bosley Crowther, “Russian Film: Love and Peace Extolled in ‘Cranes Are Flying’,” New York Times, March 27, 1960, X1.
  2. Josephine Woll, The Cranes Are Flying: The Film Companion, (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003), p.16.
  3. Sergei Gerasimov’s film has also been distributed in Anglophone countries under the titles The Mainland, The Great Earth, The Great Land, and The Ural Front.
  4. Maia Turovskaia, “’Da’ i ‘net,’” Iskusstvo kino 12 (1957): 14. As translated in Woll, p. 40.
  5. Haskell Wexler, “One Scene: The Cranes Are Flying,” The Criterion Collection, published online on August 22, 2011, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1962-one-scene-the-cranes-are-flying
  6. “Human Beings to the Fore: Sincere Russian story”, Manchester Guardian, September 13, 1958, p. 3.
  7. Crowther, op.cit.; John Beaufort, “Soviet Film Has Universal Themes,” The Christian Science Monitor, (May 2, 1960): 11.
  8. Woll, op. cit., pp. 16 and 109.
  9. “Fine Arts to Offer ‘Cranes Are Flying’,” New York Herald Tribune, December 13, 1959, p. D5.
  10. Beaufort, op. cit.; Mae Tinee, “’Cranes’ Is a Vivid Film,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 24, 1960, p. C4.
  11. Cranes Are Flying,” New York Times, February 7, 1960, p. SM28; Paul Beckley, “Seduction, Contrition in Moving Soviet Film,” New York Herald Tribune, April 3, 1960, p. D3; Tinee, op.cit.
  12. “Human Beings to the Fore”, op. cit.

About The Author

Masha Shpolberg is a Ph.D. Candidate in the joint Comparative Literature and Film and Media Studies Program at Yale University. Her work focuses on Eastern European cinema and the evolution of documentary film form.

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