When a young Soviet man answers the call to defend his country in World War II, his girlfriend attempts to maintain dedication to his love even as she struggles with the effects of the war on her personal life.
Writer(s): Viktor Rozov
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Production Co.(s): Mosfilm
The Story on the Screen
In The Cranes Are Flying, the main character, Veronika, is a young Soviet woman who shares a deeply reciprocated love with her fiancé, Boris. Their love is joyous, hopeful, and approved of by everyone in both of their families—with the notable exception of Boris's cousin, Mark, whose behavior suggests a personal interest in Veronika that he is willing to keep to himself as long as Boris is around.
Shortly after we meet the young lovers, news of war with Germany spreads across Moscow, including the factory where Boris works, which is quickly abuzz with talk of conscription. In the spirit of noble self-sacrifice, Boris volunteers to take up arms and defend his country. Mark, on the other hand, obtains a deferment from the draft based (purportedly) on his artistic talent as a pianist.
Veronika is a young Soviet woman who is deeply in love with her fiancé, Boris—a young Soviet man who joins the army to fight against the Nazis.
On the day that Boris joins the throng of his fellow Muscovites headed to war, Veronika is delayed and prevented from seeing him off at the assembly station. When she finally arrives, they look for each other desperately among the chaotic crowd, seeking one last chance to express their love and dedication before being separated by distance and time. But Fate does not look upon them kindly, and Boris departs without their being able to share a final goodbye.
Soon thereafter, Moscow finds itself in the grip of war. The streets that Boris and Veronika ran along playfully at the start of the film now sport the artifacts of armed conflict. And when Veronika's parents are killed in an air raid and their apartment is destroyed, she accepts an invitation to live with Boris's family.
Another air raid shortly thereafter leaves her alone with Mark in the family's apartment—by virtue, in part, of her refusal to seek shelter from the raid. As bombs fall nearby, she takes temporary refuge in his arms—the opening he has been looking for to declare his passion. When she becomes aware of his intentions, she attempts to fight him off and flee but fails in a cacophonous scene suggesting rape.
When Moscow comes under attack by the German army, she takes temporary refuge in the arms of a friend who overcomes and rapes her and whom she later marries.
For reasons not made clear by the storytellers, the two are soon married. But even as Mark announces the pending marriage to the family, Veronika's face betrays the shame and bitterness of feeling forced into the marriage against her will. Why is she agreeing to the marriage? We are not told. But it is clear that the man to whom she will soon vow fidelity is not the same man who owns her love.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, Boris proves himself worthy of respect. But when he fights with a fellow soldier, he is sent on a reconnaissance mission that proves to be the last he will ever undertake. While aiding a wounded comrade, he is shot and killed from afar, and as he staggers to his death in a remote swamp, we-the-audience are witness to his final fantasies of the life that he and Veronika will never share.
On the battlefield, Boris proves himself a good soldier, but he shot and killed while aiding a wounded comrade on a reconnaisance mission—news which does not reach his family, because they have been evacuated from Moscow.
Unfortunately, the news of his death does not reach his family, who are evacuated eastward with many other Muscovites. Veronika and Boris's father, Fyodor Ivanovich and cousin Irina support the war effort by working in a military hospital—while Mark spends his time partying and playing piano. And when Veronika overhears Fyodor Ivanovich berating a wounded soldier's faraway girlfriend for her reported faithlessness to him, she feels the accusation deep in her soul and knows that he sees her in the same light—as a woman who has betrayed his son even as he fights to defend their land.
His righteous anger is soon tempered, however, when he discovers that Mark is a smarmy liar who obtained his draft deferment by pretending that Fyodor Ivanovich had personally requested it. Only then does he realize the mistake of his feelings and accusations toward Veronika, the moral depravity of Mark, and the burden that Veronika has borne since the marriage.
Veronika lives with the pain of feeling that she betrayed Boris by marrying Mark and refuses to believe the Boris is dead—until his best friend returns from the war to confirm the report and present her with evidence that Boris loved her to the end of his life.
At last, the report of Boris's death reaches Veronika—first by way of a soldier who arrives at the military hospital encampment, whom she refuses to believe, then at war's end by way of Boris's best friend, Stepan, whose report she cannot deny... and who presents her with the picture of her that Boris kept with him always—a sparkling reassurance of his love. As her fellow Muscovites welcome home their battle-weary loved ones, the flowers that she bought to greet Boris find their way to the arms of others more fortunate than she.
Behind the Scenery
Like the film Yesterday, The Cranes Are Flying is more of a tale than it is a story. Its action is not driven by the intent of the main character but rather moves forward by virtue of events over which she has no control. (For details regarding the differences between a tale and a story in grok terms, see the field note titled "The Difference Between a Story and a Tale.") This assessment does not speak to the artistic value of the film or its ability to engage the sympathies of the audience, but it does affect how those sympathies are engaged. Specifically, the engagement relies on our ability to identify with Veronika's plight as a victim of circumstance rather than follow a journey in which some part of her takes the lead.
The Cranes Are Flying is more of a tale than a story, and its action is not driven by the clear intent of a main character, but it does contain a clear issue—that is, "holding firm in the dedication to one's love."
And although the tale-like aspect of the film inhibits its theme from being strongly stated in the form of a proposition (see below), it does contain a clear issue—that is, "holding firm in the dedication to one's love." This is the central issue that colors Veronika's actions from the moment that Boris heads off to war, and in this way, she may be viewed rightly as a keep character whose treasure is possession of her dedication to Boris and their shared love. It is this intent that compels her to keep from giving Mark her true affections (a wise decision, as it turns out). And it is this intent that drives the dagger deep in her soul when she overhears Fyodor Ivanovich berating the unfaithful girlfriend of the soldier—because her own actions bespeak a betrayal of the intent.
It is the intent of keeping true to her love of Boris that brings Veronika to the train station at the end of the war—with flowers to give to her beloved whose hope of survival she has clung to throughout. However, the intent itself renders puzzling her decision to marry Mark in the first place, especially since she was not pregnant from the rape. The decision represents an unexpected and uncharacteristic hiccup in her journey that we-the-audience must accept as having happened for reasons that are not entirely clear, so that we can follow the tale from that point forward.
Nevertheless, if we accept the idea that "holding firm in the dedication to one's love" serves as a reasonable issue for the tale and presume that the storytellers consider the intent to do so to be part of an advisable endeavor, we can form a rough proposition for the tale as:
- One should attempt to hold firm (keep) one's dedication to her love, because success in the attempt will reaffirm the transcendence of love as a human value.
In the end, Veronika may be said to succeed in her endeavor. The fact that she shows up with flowers at the train station, expecting to greet Boris on his return, signifies that her dedication survives as long as it reasonably can. Only when Boris's friend Stepan confirms his death does she release it. And because we like her, we are apt to be pleased in witnessing the culmination of her dedication. Consequently, The Cranes Are Flying may be said to represent a bittersweet succeed/pleased tale.
In the end, Veronika succeeds in her endeavor to maintain dedication to her love of Boris.
We leave her giving away the flowers to others, symbolically letting go of her burden. She loved Boris and knows without doubt that he loved her, too—to the end.
It is enough.