Two young lovers happily watch cranes flying overhead, little knowing that they are soon to be torn apart by war. A simple, tragic tale, turned by brilliant photography and editing into one of the most compelling films in the history of the cinema, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, achieved almost legendary status, and has had nothing like the exposure it deserves.
Introduced by John Riley, a distinguished lecturer on Russian cinema,
who considers it one of the best and most interesting films of its time
USSR 1957, 92 Minutes, Dir: Mikhail Kalatozov
Young Veronika and Boris are in love, and planning to marry. But it’s June, 1941, and Germany has just invaded. Boris volunteers to defend Mother Russia, while his cousin Mark gets an exemption. Boris goes off to battle, leaving Veronica in the civilian ‘front line’, ceaselessly battered by air raids. Months pass, and she hears nothing from him. She knows he loves her, he’d write if he could. He must be dead.
It’s a simple, poignant tale, made special by the telling. The cinematography is imaginative and varied: long handheld tracking shots mixed with wide angle views, montages reminiscent of Eisenstein, high and low angle shots worthy of Citizen Kane, and telling juxtapositions of images. The sequence expressing a dying soldier’s last thoughts, when not his past life but all the might-have-beens of his future flash before his eyes, is particularly impressive; a perfect blend of music, images and emotion.
When the film was released in the Soviet Union audiences wept uncontrollably. This was their story, previously swept under the carpet by Stalinist works of patriotic glory. It was initially well received in the West, wining the Grand Prix at Cannes (Tatiana Samojlova took the prize for Best Actress). Later it rather fell out of favour and has not been shown as often as it deserves. This was partly political – Russia changing remarkably quickly from gallant ally to threat – but probably also due to the story. In a western film of the time Boris would come marching home in the last reel to a joyful reunion with the ever-faithful Veronika, who’d been tying yellow ribbons round the old oak tree ever since he left. But while she never stops loving Boris, eventually, reluctantly, she agrees to marry cousin Mark.
But this is one of the film’s strengths. As well as showing the virtues of patriotism and heroism, the waste of war and the tragedy of shattered lives, it deals with realities that most war films ignore: draft dodging, profiteering, the black market, and the ways in which people under intolerable stress don’t always behave as they, or others, feel they should.
Veronika – Tatiana Samojlova
Boris – Aleksei Batalov
Mark – Aleksandr Shvorin
Director – Mikhail Kalatozov
Screenplay – Viktor Roskov (from his own play)
Music – M Weinberg
Photography – Sergei Urusevsky
- “Brilliant. Excellent. Amazing photography.”
- “Brilliant: quite astonishing in its direction & impact. Lovely & very moving.”
- “Tremendous! Very moving, although Veronica is a deeply unsatisfactory character. Amazing for its time, especially (the) photography. What happened to little Boris?”
- “A very interesting talk by John Riley. Fantastic camera work.”
- “Those were never real cranes!”
- “Sadly, this is the first chance I’ve had to come to ABCD this term”