Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.
My reaction to a film like Letyat Zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying) is initially an unfair one, I freely admit. I’ve made the observation in the past that of all the possible topics of films, World War II might well be the most common on The List, and possibly the most common in general. There’s a shit-ton of WWII to get through, and we see the war through almost every possible lens. This film gives us the lens of the Russian homefront, a sort of Soviet Mrs. Miniver, if you will. Like any homefront film, it shows us all the terrors of the war without really showing us much of the war itself, but this time, it comes from the point of view of those struggling to survive for the benefit of Mother Russia.
We start before the war begins, with the burgeoning romance between Boris (Aleksy Batalov) and Veronika (Tatyana Samoylova). They’re a cute couple and all indications are that they will be married. But of course the war comes, and rather than waiting to be drafted into the People’s Army, Boris enlists with his friend Stepan (Valentin Zubkov). Veronika tries to see Boris off to the front, but is prevented by the massive crowd, and so off he goes without a goodbye from his sweetheart.
Of course, Russia is eventually invaded, bringing the war to the civilian population. During a particularly fierce air raid, Veronika heads off to a shelter, leaving her parents at home, since they refuse to accompany her. When the raid is over, she tries to return home, but finds not her parents killed in a blast, but their entire apartment simply gone, blown away from the building completely. With nowhere to go, she moves in with Boris’s family. Also living with the family is Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), a nephew. During another particularly intense air raid—one during which Veronika refuses to leave the house, Mark makes his affections for her known. It’s sort of implied that he may have raped her, although this is never made explicit. As a result, Veronika is deeply shamed and is essentially forced into a marriage with Mark. This causes a great deal of resentment from the rest of the family, who believe that she has abandoned Boris for someone simply more convenient.
While this is happening, we get a brief foray into the war itself. Boris risks his life for a fellow soldier and is killed. Due to the conditions caused by the war, his family doesn’t learn of his death. Instead, Boris is listed as missing in action. Veronika is decidedly unhappy in her marriage to Mark (and he evidently is as well), and she continues to hold out hope that Boris will return from the front and rescue her from what her life has become. In the meanwhile, Boris’s father (Vasiliy Merkurev) learns that Mark’s deferment from the Soviet military has come as a result of a forgery, meaning that he has not only betrayed the family and Boris by stealing Veronika, he has betrayed the entire country.
Films that take place during a war and concern the lives of those who remain at home are not that difficult to find. What makes Letyat Zhuravli different is that it comes from an extremely Soviet perspective. Boris’s death is not a meaningless event in the greater scheme of things but something that eventually ennobles him, making him something of a minor hero at least to his family if not to the country as a whole. All sacrifice for the greater good of Mother Russia is sacrifice not just worth making, but demanded of those who call her Motherland.
There’s also a sense of The Scarlet Letter here. Veronika is a woman who is shamed for something she had no power over, but eventually is able to redeem herself in the eyes of the people who become her family. It is very much the story of her tragedy and redemption, and naturally that redemption comes in a way that supports and glorifies the Soviet state. Like Boris, Veronika is ennobled by her tragic sacrifice.
It’s that distinct propaganda flavor that’s the most difficult to take here. What seems to be the moral of the story is that those who act in accordance with their own desires and ends get what is coming to them. Those who instead put the Soviet state first…well, at least they don’t get what they deserve. From a Soviet perspective, it might well be considered that Veronika does in fact get a happy ending here, or at least the happiest ending possible in Stalin’s Russia.
The real question is whether or not Letyat Zhuravli is any good. It is. The film is beautifully shot through, and Mikhail Kalatazov manages some very interesting effects in some scenes. This is not the Soviet montage style, but it pays some homage to it. And it certainly comes as a natural part of several great film traditions. It’s good, potentially great, but there’s a lot here you’ve almost certainly seen in one context or another..
Why to watch Letyat Zhuravli: A purely Soviet reaction to war.
Why not to watch: It’s so Soviet, it should come packaged in a Kremlin.