The Cranes are Flying plays at Pacific Film Archive at 5:30pm on Friday, Nov. 28 as part of the series ‘Discovering Georgian Cinema’

Tbilisi is the capital city of the republic of Georgia – one of the pawns in what is now being touted by some (including Mikhail Gorbachev) as a ‘new cold war’. Previously known as Tiflis, Tbilisi was the 1903 birthplace of Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov and the youthful stomping grounds of one Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili, also known as Joseph Stalin.

Stalin would become one of history’s greatest monsters, while Kalatozov’s greatest film would only be made possible by the dictator’s death in 1953. Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying) plays at Pacific Film Archive at 5:30pm on Friday, Nov. 28 as part of the series ‘Discovering Georgian Cinema’, and remains a classic of the post-Stalin era – the only Soviet film, in fact, to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Released in 1957, The Cranes are Flying begins on June 22nd 1941: the first day of The Great Patriotic War. Veronica (Tatyana Samoylova, who died earlier this year on her 70th birthday) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) are a couple in the mad throes of young love; they’ve spent the wee hours of the morning larking about the otherwise deserted streets of Moscow.

Returning to their respective homes at dawn, the couple awaken to discover that their country is now at war. At first, they barely notice: Boris continues to work his factory job, while an attempt to hang blackout curtains turns into a playful game of tug-of-war between the two lovebirds.

Things change when Boris reveals he’s volunteered for the Army. Parents Fyodor and Irina, highly qualified doctors both, think him a fool; Veronica simply can’t understand why he hid his intentions from her. Meanwhile, Boris’s cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), a pianist with a draft exemption, takes advantage of the opportunity to make a play for Veronica.

Hurriedly departing the next day, Boris leaves behind a toy squirrel as a birthday present for his sweetheart. Rushing to the departure point to get a final glimpse of her beloved, Veronica finds herself lost amidst a sea of people bidding farewell to their own loved ones. The two never see each other again.

There is, of course, much more to the story than that, but suffice it to say that the film’s tragic arc remains relentless until its very final scene, which miraculously manages to provide uplift while avoiding sentimentality. Viktor Rozov’s screenplay (based on his own play) has the resounding ring of truth; though there’s precious little information about Rozov available, I’d be shocked if it doesn’t reflect at least some of his own wartime experiences.

It’s clear The Cranes are Flying could never have been made during Stalin’s lifetime. Humorous references to the platitudes of the ruling Communist Party would not have been allowed; nor would the influences of expressionism and film noir have been countenanced (Kalatozov had spent several years in America and admired Frank Borzage and other Hollywood directors).

In some respects, this is a classic noir, with the film’s primary character thrust by fate into a nightmarish, inescapable situation underscored by cinematographer Sergey Urusevskiy’s use of darkness, light and shadow. As a Soviet-made war film, only Grigory Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1959) can match The Cranes are Flying’s power and emotional impact. In short, it’s essential viewing.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...