The Cranes are Flying
This landmark film by the virtuosic Mikhail Kalatozov was heralded as a revelation in the post-Stalin Soviet Union and the international cinema community alike. It tells the story of Veronica and Boris, a couple who are blissfully in love until the eruption of World War II tears them apart. With Boris at the front, Veronica must try to ward off spiritual numbness and defend herself from the increasingly forceful advances of her beau’s draft-dodging cousin. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, The Cranes Are Flying is a superbly crafted drama with impassioned performances and viscerally emotional, gravity-defying cinematography by Kalatozov’s regular collaborator Sergei Urusevsky.
Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying is presented on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. It has been encoded onto a dual-layer disc in 1080p/24hz and sourced from a new 2K restoration performed by Mosfilm. The restoration itself was sourced from the 35mm original camera negative.
The new presentation is a significant improvement over Criterion’s previous DVD. That DVD was laced with artifacts (on occasion, the otherwise progressive presentation has interlacing artifacts) and blown out contrast but, to its credit, the restoration efforts did clear up a lot of damage at least. With this new presentation we get a far more natural looking image unlike the video-processed one of the DVD, with better contrast that allows for richer blacks, mellower whites (that don’t bloom), and better defined gray levels. Grain is there, but not heavy and rendered cleanly, which leads to crisp details throughout, other than during a hazier looking fantasy sequence. Motion is also cleaner, best shown during the film’s more frantic use of the camera.
The restoration has also cleaned up damage further and other than some minor blemishes I never noted anything large; the large blotches that remained on the previous DVD’s presentation are all gone. In the end it’s a remarkable restoration and final presentation, and the film was a completely different experience after having only watched the film through Criterion’s DVD.
Now presented in lossless PCM mono, the audio has certainly been improved upon, though it’s still limited. There was a harshness and edginess to the Criterion DVD that was a bit off-putting, and while that has been cleaned up (and that “dubby” quality is now gone) there is still a bit of distortion to voices and music can screech a bit on the higher ends. I’ll put it down to the original recordings, though.
Criterion’s previous DVD had no supplemental material outside of an insert featuring a short essay by Chris Fujiwara. Fujiwara provides another one here that builds off of that essay in that it follows a similar structure, but other than a few passages that are very similar he has rewritten it in its entirety. While he covers the same material in the original essay (the impact the film had, its camerawork), he expands this one out to include some of Kalatozov’s other work (Letter Never Sent, I Am Cuba) and the state of Soviet cinema before and after the film.
It’s a significantly better essay, and alone I would say it would have offered an upgrade all on its own (though a minor one), but thankfully Criterion goes for broke here and loads on some great material for this release. Ian Christie first provides new interview for this release, providing a primer for Kalatozov’s work (something Criterion didn’t even bother doing for their release of Letter Never Sent!) Christie talks about his previous silent works, with a focus on two films, Salt for Svanetia and Nail in the Boot, the two of which then lead Christie to talk about his contentious relationship with the Soviet government, who didn’t like the content of the films (the latter was banned probably because it suggested a broken system, though another feature on the disc suggests it not clear as to why it was banned). Christie then talks about his work as a bureaucrat, which led him to Hollywood to get films for distribution in Russia, and then his move back to film with some propaganda works before making The Cranes Are Flying, which he could only make because of the thaw that occurred after Stalin’s death. Considering the legacy of the director I’ve always been a bit shocked Criterion hadn’t done a feature like this before, but they’ve finally got around to it and it’s and very thorough and well researched presentation by Christie, covering a lot in 19-minutes.
Criterion also digs up an 11-minute audio interview from 1961 featuring Kalatozov talking with Gideon Bachmann about poetic cinema, his work with director of photography Sergei Urusevsky, their aesthetic, and the criticisms they’ve had lopped at them around it. There is also some discussion around Letter Never Sent and the visuals in that film. The audio plays over stills and clips from the discussed film. This is then followed by a 14-minute excerpt from the 2008 documentary about Urusevsky, called Portrait of Segei Urusevsky. The section focuses on The Cranes Are Flying and Letter Never Sent, and features interviews with collaborators and members of the cast of the respective films, including Alexai Batalov and Vasili Livanov. Through these discussions we learn of his working method, attention to detail (similar to other highly-detailed D.P.’s he would wait around for the perfect cloud cover), and how Kalatozov and him worked together in capturing a scene’s underlying emotions in the shot. There are also samples of his storyboards and planning into specific shots from both films.
One aspect I was disappointed with was the lack of detail covering the more elaborate shots in the film. It’s covered to a degree in the previous feature, but I guess I was expecting more. Surprisingly, the next feature, a 5-minute interview from 2001 called The Road to Cannes, features French filmmaker Claude Lelouch talking about his role in getting the film submitted to Cannes. He had travelled to Moscow and was filming for a documentary when he made his way to Mosfilm, catching the filming of The Cranes Are Flying’s opening staircase scene. Lelouch was able to catch how this sequence was pulled off and we get to see that film footage here. Lelouch then explains how he thrilled he was with what he was seeing and how he went back home, called the president of Cannes, and praised the film up and down (he had lied and said he saw the finished film, but actually hadn’t) and this got the ball rolling in getting it submitted. Despite the brevity of the feature it is probably my favourite one on here.
Criterion then closes the disc off with the 74-minute, 2009 documentary Hurricane Kalatozov. Consisting of interviews with various scholars and even family members of the director (one of whom runs the Kalatozov Foundation), the documentary looks at his work from the silent era, to that of a party bureaucrat, and then his later films, looking at the development of his style and the social messages found in his work, with I Am Cuba probably receiving more of a focus. In a nice surprise, Claudia Cardinale pops up during the last portion to talk about The Red Tent, the director’s last film. It’s a pretty typical biographical piece of its type, but there is a heavier academic angle to it in examining his work and the imagery found within his films.
And then closing off the release is that aforementioned Fujiwara essay found in the included insert. All around Criterion provides a far more satisfying collection of extras, covering the film and the director’s career as a whole.
Criterion corrects its problematic, barebones original DVD edition with this stacked special edition Blu-ray, that also offers a significantly better A/V presentation. Highly recommended, and definitely worth upgrading to if you already own the older DVD.