In the decade following the end of World War II, Soviet cinema pertaining to the conflict did little to address the personal damages and emotions felt by the common citizen. While some films simply portrayed a world where the conflict seemingly never happened, there were of course notable films covering the Soviet Union’s victory in the struggle of “The Great Patriotic War”. Aside from being relatively rare occurrences, these films tended to focus on the role of the Soviet leadership during the war rather than the harsh reality faced by the common people who fought and endured throughout the darkest days of WWII.
This trend continued until 1955, with the release of the film The Soldier Ivan Brovkin. The movie depicts a story all too familiar to many people of the Soviet Union, a young man of simple rural upbringing who is drafted into service for the Red Army. While the values portrayed in the movie were certainly relatable to many, the film was set in peacetime and showed no actual images of warfare. It wasn’t until 1957 that Soviet audiences would witness a film that would revisit the emotions felt during the turbulent early periods of the war, immortalized on the big screen in director Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying.
The Cranes Are Flying took a different direction than all the Soviet war films that preceded it, focusing not on the Soviet leadership and the glory of the victory over the Germans, bur rather the cruelties and suffering of the war faced by millions. The movie also has a female main star, representing the hardships of Soviet women during the period. The plot follows the story of Veronika, a woman whose boyfriend, Boris, has answered the patriotic call to war as the Germans begin Operation Barbarossa and invade the Soviet Union.
A particularly powerful scene depicts the moment where Boris is preparing to be marched off to the front, anxiously waiting for Veronika to find him. She arrives as the crowds flock around the departing column of new troops. She manages to spot him while desperately searching down the formation, repeatedly calling to him. In the chaotic, deafening crowd, Boris doesn’t hear her, and they fail to see each other for what would have been a final goodbye. While retreating back to Moscow in the face of the Nazi Blitzkrieg, Boris is killed saving a fellow soldier. It is a truly heartbreaking moment; Boris is mistakenly listed as MIA, leaving Veronika clinging to hope as she endures even more tragedies. Her parents are presumably killed, and then a scene alludes to her being raped by a man named Mark, the nephew of Boris’s father who has long pursued her. In shame, she marries him. Eventually she is freed from the marriage, only to find out once and for all that Boris has indeed been killed. The movie closes having depicted the horrible realities faced by so many Soviet women, as well as the sacrifice made by almost 9 million Red Army soldiers who lost their lives.
The film went on to win the highest award at the Cannes Film Festival, the only Soviet film to win the award. The powerful emotions in The Cranes Are Flying remain timeless as they are felt in every war; the horrible feeling of being separated from a loved one while they march off into combat, and the terrible news of learning that they have fallen in battle. Should you be interested in viewing this great piece of Soviet post-war cinema, it can be found posted below.
Sources: James von Geldern. War Films – 17 Moments in Soviet History. Soviethistory.msu.edu.
The Cranes Are Flying, parts I and II: