Cranes Are Flying, The (Russian: Letyat Zhuravli) (1958): Mikhail Kalatozov’s WWII Melodrama, Cannes Fest Top Winner, Starring Tatiana Samoilova and Aleksey Batalov

Blast from the Past:

Classics of World Cinema Revisited

The Cranes Are Flying (Russian: Letyat zhuravli), a Soviet film about WWII, depicts the cruelty of war and the damage done to the Soviet psyche, both collective and personal.

The Cranes Are Flying
Letyat Zhuravli.jpg

Film poster

The film was made at Mosfilm by Georgian-born Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov in 1957, starring Aleksey Batalov and Tatiana Samoilova.

Adapted by Viktor Rozov from his play, the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, the only Soviet film to win that award.

(In 1946, The Turning Point was one of 11 films awarded the Grand Prix, the predecessor of the Palme d’Or.)

WWII has been known in the Soviet Union as the “Great Patriotic War.”

In Moscow, June 22, 1941, Veronika and boyfriend Boris watch cranes fly over the city as the sun rises. Later, Boris’s cousin Mark wakes him with news that the Germans have invaded.

Veronika learns that Boris volunteered for the army, and that he asked his grandmother to give her a birthday gift, a stuffed squirrel toy (“squirrel” is Boris’s pet name for Veronika) with a love note.

Veronika arrives too late to see Boris at his apartment, but his grandmother gives Veronika the squirrel. Veronika searches for Boris at the assembly station but misses him there too.

Veronika remains in Moscow with her parents, who are killed in a German air raid, which also destroys their apartment building. Boris’s family invites the orphaned Veronika to stay with them.

Boris, at the front, gets into argument with Volodya, who taunts him over a photo of Veronika. Their commanding officer catches them fighting and assigns them dangerous reconnaissance mission. Boris saves Volodya’s life, but Boris gets shot. In his final moments, he has a vision of the wedding that he and Veronika never had.

Back in Moscow, Boris’s cousin Mark declares love for Veronika, but she faithfully waits for Boris. When another air raid strikes, Mark makes a pass at her, but she rebuffs him. Furious at being rejected, he rapes her.

Veronika and Mark marry, but she despises him. Meanwhile, Boris’ family despises her for betraying their son, who they  think is still alive.

To escape the German offensive, the family is relocated to Siberia. Veronika works as nurse in a military hospital run by Boris’s father, Fyodor. Mark and Veronika are miserable in their marriage.

When a soldier in the hospital becomes hysterical after he received a letter saying his girlfriend left him for someone else, Veronika rushes to get Fyodor.

She barely misses seeing the injured Volodya, who is about to be admitted to the hospital, before Fyodor says that the hospital is full. Fyodor admonishes the distraught soldier to forget his unfaithful and unworthy girlfriend. Veronika overhears Fyodor’s speech and becomes upset since she appears to be such a woman.

Overwhelmed with guilt, Veronika tries to throw herself in front of a train. But before attempting suicide, she sees a child about to be hit by a car and rescues him. The boy, separated from his mother, is called Boris. Veronika takes the boy home and looks for her squirrel toy. Boris’s sister Irina spitefully tells Veronika that Mark is giving the toy to his mistress at her birthday party. Veronika races over to the party, where a partygoer has finally found the note that Boris hid. Veronika grabs it, and in voice-over Boris narrates the final tender love note to her.

Fyodor learns that Mark bribed his way out of being drafted into the Red Army. He realizes Mark betrayed Russia and the family and has taken advantage of Veronika. Fyodor kicks Mark out, and Veronika is forgiven by the family for “betraying” Boris. The boy saved by Veronika becomes part of the family. Later, Volodya, having recovered, comes in search of Boris’s family and tells them that Boris is dead.

In 1945, the war has ended, and Veronika and Volodya stroll by the river back in Moscow. They are close, but Veronika still refuses to believe that Boris is dead since Volodya was injured and never saw Boris die.

Boris’s unit returns, and Veronika finally learns that Boris is indeed dead. In tears, she stumbles through the celebrating crowd. As Stepan gives rousing speech, Veronika goes from grieving to handing the flowers to the soldiers and their families.

In the last scene, which is symmetric to the first one, she looks up to observe cranes flying again in the sky over Moscow.

The protagonist Veronika was instrumental in shaping the post-Stalinist Soviet movies by heralding more complex and sensual heroines.

The film, which focuses on the impact of war on common people, was hailed by critics for its stunning cinematography, acting, direction and editing.

The lead actress, Tatiana Samoilova, which would always be identified with this role, took Europe by storm. After the film’s victory at Cannes, where it earned the Grand Prize, she became internationally famous. Samoilova recalled receiving a watch from East German fans, with inscription that read “Finally we see on the Soviet screen a face, not a mask.”


Tatiana Samoilova as Veronika
Aleksey Batalov as Boris
Vasili Merkuryev as Fyodor Ivanovich
Aleksandr Shvorin as Mark
Svetlana Kharitonova as Irina
Konstantin Nikitin as Volodya
Valentin Zubkov as Stepan
Antonina Bogdanova as Grandmother
Boris Kokovkin as Tyernov
Yekaterina Kupriyanova as Anna Mikhajlovna


Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov
Written by Viktor Rozov (play & screenplay)
Cinematography Sergey Urusevsky
Edited by Mariya Timofeyeva
Music by Moisey Vaynberg

Production company: Mosfilm

Distributed by Warner Bros.

Release date: 21 March 1960

Running time: 95 minutes
Country Soviet Union
Box office: 28,300,000 admissions (USSR); 5,410,000 admissions (France)