The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov / Russia, 1957):
(Letyat Zhuravli)

Not just the cranes, but the tracks, the dollies, the pan-tilt heads, the lenses are all flying. The trajectory is the heroineís, from Jennifer Jonesoid button-nose to Mukhina sculpture; the plot is a Griffithian frenzy, brought to Soviet soil to capture a nationís memory of war and take advantage of the stylistic hunger triggered by the death of Stalinís "cult of personality." Boy (Alexei Batalov) and Girl (Tatyana Samojlova) dash through the streets of Moscow, and from the beginning the swooning shifts in angle -- very high, very low -- offer a world heightened, transformed by emotional urgency. War intrudes, the couple is separated. Extended tracking shots glide by the swarming, singing, weeping masses at the gated station, trying in vain to connect the desperate protagonists. (Incredibly, Dwight Macdonald wrote that montage would have worked better. This being Eisenstein terrain and all.) Love is initially "a harmless mental illness" and finally "a ride against the forces of Nature," Mikhail Kalatozovís camera dances to it. Murnau and Borzage are the pillars of the ardent technique, which alternately suggests opera (the heroineís seduction, framed by billowing curtains and scored to Tchaikovsky and air raid sirens) and silent cinema (the boyís reverie of marriage and happiness, spiraling in the time it takes a shot soldier to hit the mud). A clock tick-tocking excruciatingly amid the ruins, a Siberian family exodus, a crowded hospital ward: "This is whatís become of Mother Russia," sighs the patriarch. It falls to Samojlova to embody smiling-through-tears national regeneration in the finale, where Vidorís The Crowd is called into play. (Or is that Minnelliís The Clock?) A film of thunderbolts, volcanic partings and reunions, eyes that flash at the viewer. To follow up such sensations, only another revolution will do (I Am Cuba). Cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky. With Vasili Merkuryev, Aleksandr Shvorin, Svetlana Kharitonova, Konstantin Nikitin, and Valentin Zubkov. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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