The Cranes are Flying is a Russian film that took the cinema world by storm in the 1950s. After electrifying audiences inside the Soviet Union it went on to great success in the West despite the Cold War atmosphere, winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1958. Focussing on two young lovers at the start of World War II, its emotional intensity is matched by great artistic bravado.
The cinematographer was Sergei Urusevsky who made several films with director Mikhail Kalatozov, all of them marked by a radical visual style.
Urusevsky was a controversial artist in the Soviet era because of the overt artistic quality of his camera work. He was labelled a formalist, preoccupied with artistic effects, a dangerous accusation in the era of Soviet Realism where communist propaganda was seen as the role of art.
“Sergei Urusevsky will be remembered as one of the most innovative and resourceful figures in the history of cinematography, a proponent of a filmmaking in which a subjective camera narrates the film. He advocated a camera technique that would edit the film with its own movement and make montage obsolete.” (filmreference.com)
In her book on the film, (The Cranes are Flying, Taurus, London, 2003) Josephine Woll describes “Uresevsky’s nervous, dynamic (often hand-held) camera, the flow of frames that creates a sense of constant motion, and the rapid changes of point of view matched Kalatozov’s romantic sensibility, his plasticity. The cinematographer describes the process as ‘thinking in images’.”
Urusevsky employed a subjective camera style where the framing and movements themselves convey emotions rather than just observing them in the performance. You can see that in the dramatic angles and extreme close ups in the images below. The camera’s eye is inside the character’s emotional space, it “becomes her shadow, her double, and resonates with her emotions.” (Woll 2003)
Cranes has one of the great individual shots in cinema history, a tour-de-force of camera operating, performance and the coordinating of extras and machines. The protagonist Veronika is desperately trying to reach her lover who is about to march off to war, but her bus is held up in traffic. In a single handheld shot we follow up-close as she gets up and leaves the bus, rushes through the melée of crowds and vehicles then runs between moving tanks in a military parade.
Imagine yourself as the camera operator manouvering inside the bus, following the actress through the crowd, then stepping onto a waiting platform and being hoisted up in the air by a crane. When you see this shot, you’ll realize the title of the film has another meaning altogether!