"The Cranes are Flying" (1957)

Imagine that Doctor Zhivago had been a really good movie. (Oh yes, that it is the kind of combative, controversial statement I am going to start with.) Mikhail Kalatozov's 1957 masterpiece The Cranes are Flying deals with many of the same themes as David Lean's epic romance - the giddiness of love, the brutal economies of war, seemingly casual betrayals and amorous separations against the backdrop of irresistable global events. It adds in abundance, however, what Zhivago crucially lacks: a sense of self-reflection, of doubt, of a claustrophobic uncertainty that undermines mere stone-faced soldiering on.

As the film opens, we are treated to the most exuberant portrait of love I have ever seen on film: Veronika (played to the hilt by Tatiana Yevgenyevna Samoylova) is madly enamoured of Boris - hopping, skipping, jumping with an excess of love - but despite this, when the Second World War ensnares Russia, Boris immediately enlists. Veronika, annoyed, sends him away to prepare for his imminent departure, promising to come to him in time to say goodbye. Her ill humor reaps its consequences, however: her streetcar gets caught in traffic as all the new recruits and their families rush down the street to report for duty. When she arrives at the apartment, and later the rallying point, Boris has already left. This yields the first in the film's many spectacular crowd scenes, the best I have seen since the silent film The Crowd - roiling and violent and impossible for the individual to fight her way through. Veronika is stays behind, lonely and uncomprehending, bombed incessantly by the Germans and hounded by Boris's enamored cousin. She never hears from Boris, and cannot know if he is alive or dead. Even we, who know considerably more about his activities than she does, aren't completely sure after a point.

I talk about the lovers' exuberance, but perhaps I should say instead that the film is exuberant. It is utterly unashamed of the extremity of its emotions, and although this yields some very sentimental moments and some unusually over-the-top acting it is expressed with such obvious sincerity that I was willing to forgive The Cranes are Flying virtually anything. Many scenes are played to the edge of emotional possibility, almost convincing me that they were improvised, but each gesture is so obviously crucial, so necessarily choreographed that this cannot be the case. Rather I think that our reference should be to the gestural science of Meyerhold's theatre (who Samoylova's father had acted under) and the character immersion of Stanislavsky (who was related to her by blood).

This exuberance, rough and startling and sincere, is not limited to the acting - it seeps into an editing style that is abrupt, theatrical, shocking, unconventional and unnervingly modern. It is impossible (for me, at least, lacking the full vocabulary of film analysis) to describe the variety of techniques that Kalatozov develops to underscore his heroine's psychological torments, so luckily there is a brief excerpt on YouTube. This scene comes from what might very well be the film's climax, a sequence that references the (forgotten) nature of film as a series of discrete images, the Odessa steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin, and, of course, Anna Karenina, whom Samoylova would play elsewhere. Two requests: 1) if you are wary of spoilers, venture not into this excerpt, and 2) bear in mind how primally powerful this sequence is when it has the full weight of the movie behind it. At this point, Veronika has been driven to despair by the uncertainty of Boris's fate and the questionable morality of her own behavior (it is really the first minute and a half that you NEED to see - up to the point where she talks to the child by the side of the road - the events after that really have to be seen in the context of the film as a whole):

Has there ever been a film that so perfectly blended the innovations of experimental film-making with the pounding narrative drive of a nineteenth-century novel? I recommend this to you in the most urgent possible terms; if I hadn't just seen F for Fake, this would be the best movie I have seen in months.

The Cranes are Flying (1957)
dir. Mikhail Kalatozov