Exploring the new artistic and political possibilities presented by the policies of thaw and de-Stalinization must include a conversation about a few films, one of them is The Cranes are Flying. The film makes great use of the thaw’s artistic freedom in almost every way. The freedom to show workers, farmers and soldiers in a more realistic way rivaled the emotional expression of the socialist “realism” expression of heroes. The flat monolithic portrayal of Stalin’s ego as the main character had ended. Shock workers and military heroes take different forms. A broken woman whose love has gone to war and a child whose loss propels him to his own death. There are many visual decisions and narrative directions of each film that respond directly to censorship undertaken during Stalinism. Robbed of the tools of expression that made Russian cinema stand out before the doctrine of socialist realism went into effect, this thaw era film reopened the toolbox and used them until they ran out of tools.
In The Cranes are Flying, the hero figure is flipped on its head. The viewer is not going on the glorious trip with Boris, fighting the Nazis on the front. Instead, we retreat into the interior of both the heroine’s mind and the nation itself. The fears and anxieties of the characters are not treated as hurdles that need to be crossed for perfection. They are real, still in form with socialist realist principals outside of Stalinism. The film is a realistic portrayal in a representative sense and gives a better sense of the feelings on the ground after the war. The actual feelings, the feelings of the citizens. The de-programming of the cult of personality of Stalin allow these feelings to fill the overall tone of the film.
Before Boris goes off to war, he sits down to share a final meal with his family. His father gives a speech. Life is not yet what we want it to be, a similar value found in Stalinism, but Boris is going off to war and it is not romanticized or glamorous. His father doesn’t even have words. The sacrifice of lives is acknowledged. This foreshadows the death of Boris in a scene that shows off the artistic opportunities reoffered by thaw era policies.
A FEW SHOTS TO BREAK IT DOWN
As he is shot during a survey mission Boris begins to fall down.
The shot changes to a point-of-view shot and the scene slows down and zooms away from the sun.
Boris falls even further dissolving into a double exposure shot of the trees and his past and future.
A shot of him running upstairs from earlier in the film.
It fades into a scene of Boris and Veronika’s future marriage to him that will sadly now, not happen.
Soon the shots of life are gone as Boris dies and falls into a puddle on the battlefield.
The scene brings in montage and temporal exploitation in a more interpretive way than allow previously. His death that lasted mere seconds is stretched for minutes, allowing his life, rather than his death to the focus of the scene. A complete repudiation of Stalinist film making standards. Breaking the scene down may not seem important, but the freedom to shoot the scene and edit it this way with this tone was NOT allowed for years.
This film is a Palme d’Or winner at The Cannes Film Festival and one of the most beautiful and meaningful films ever put to screen. It is both an invigorating visual feast and a bold, humanistic depiction of war. The archetypal character of the conventional wartime hero was less limited, unlike many Soviet war-themed films of the period, and more concerned with futility, violence and indeed the inevitability of battle. As a cinematic concept, love is so frequently idealized as a concept that somehow conquers all and endures constant suffering, yet the truth is far less romantic. The film makes decades of artistic ground in a short amount of time.