Few films have touched my life as strongly as the Soviet war drama The Cranes Are Flying (1957). Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, it stars a woman of immense talent, Tatiana Samoilova (also spelled Tatyana Samojlova or Tatyana Samoylova). However her name was spelled, her performance was flawless, a fantastic showcase for the budding actress.
I first saw the film on TV on Turner Classic Movies, around the ages of fourteen or fifteen. The channel regularly shows foreign films on Sunday nights, usually around 2:00 in the morning. Kalatozov’s film, a beautiful elegy about World War II, played on one of those late nights and I was enraptured. Samoilova’s beauty drew me in, but her depiction of young Veronika convinced me of her excellence was the high quality of her acting.
In October 2007, the Brooklyn Academy of Music put together a retrospective of Kalatozov’s films. Naturally, I took my mother and brother to see The Cranes Are Flying. As I did the first time I saw the film, I wept and wept – perhaps even more so this second time. Empathy gives way to emotion every time I think of what the characters go through on their respective journeys.
The film does not shy away from the horrors witnessed on the Russian battlefields and the destruction and personal turmoil experienced by loved ones left behind in the cities. Veronika suffers mightily, but she keeps finding ways to maintain her tenuous grasp on life.
Veronika experiences great hardship, mental anguish and physical pain, but still she endures. Her whims, her desires and her struggle for survival in a nation ravaged by war were so moving that the actress received a “Special Mention” acting prize from the Cannes Film Festival (the film is notable as the only Soviet production to ever win the Palme d’Or), wins from the German Film Critics Association and the Jussi (Finnish film) Awards, as well as earning a nomination for the “Best Foreign Actress” BAFTA Award.
Tragedy strikes again and again, but the ending of this harrowing drama is somehow uplifting and redemptive. Samoilova’s extraordinary performance is the anchor. Her work in Kalatozov’s following film, Letter Never Sent (1959), is very good too, but The Cranes Are Flying is a masterpiece that will stand the test of time. When I heard earlier tonight that Samoilova had passed away, only one day after her 80th birthday (which I had been aware of since I like to keep track of such things), it was terrible news. Our consolation is that she lives on forever in the images and sounds captured on celluloid, an eternal life that transcends barriers of time and language.