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The Cranes Are Flying – Narrative and its Implications March 21, 2008

Filed under: Film Reviews — aloysia @ 12:47 am

This is an essay I wrote for class. It’s rather rushed but I’m pleased with parts of it.

Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying presents some aspects of classical narrative as well as alternatives to such. A narrative is considered to be a chain of events in a cause and effect relationship occurring in time and space. This is a concise explanation of what proves to be a relatively complex series of events leading to an ultimate conclusion. Certain aspects of the story are inferred while others are told directly. The inferred aspects are left up to the viewer to mentally piece together. In The Cranes are Flying, narrative structure is used to give the viewer cultural and ideological meaning. The film upholds Soviet ideology and yet in many ways severely undercuts that same ideology. Several scenes contradict each other with their subtle jabs at the soviet ideal. The most common is this films favoring of the sum part rather than the whole as evidenced in several scenes. These two aspects work in harmony to create a film that never truly lives up to the state ideology nor does it disgrace it.

Examples of conventional cause and effect narrative occur most prominently at the beginning of the film. As the film moves forward, the more unconventional narrative forms come into play. At the beginning, the viewer is given an introduction to the relationship between Veronique and Boris. The viewer assumes and is then informed that they are in love, (“Love is like a harmless mental illness”). The audience is then led to believe that they must have met sometime before the events, forming the basis of the plot take place. Considering the relative comfort the characters seem to have with each other, the viewer determines that they must have been together for a period of time outside the events currently taking place. It is, however, generally irrelevant for the purposes of the film. Much of the cause and effect narrative comes into play much later in the story. One example is the birthday present Boris gives to Veronique near the beginning. He presents her with a stuffed squirrel. If he had not given her the squirrel than one of the events, towards the end of the film, Veronique storming into a stranger’s house to reclaim her gift after Mark has idiotically taken it to give it to someone else without her permission, would never have occurred. As well, in the context of the narrative, we must assume that this event takes place several years after Boris has gone to war. Another event related to that particular gift occurs when the film makes it a point to show Veronique bringing the squirrel with her when she goes down into the subway during an air raid. If she had not taken it, the subsequent event, many years from that time, would not have occurred. The incident with the stuffed squirrel was one that eventually lead to Veronique’s ultimate disillusionment of her relationship with Mark.

Another prominent use of cause and effect is seen close to the end of the film. Veronique is working at the hospital when one of the wounded soldiers begins screaming that he wants to die because his girlfriend married someone else while he was at war. Fyodor gives a powerful speech on how woman like that are not worthy of his affections in any case. The rest of the patients join him in voicing their disgust with undeserving women. Veronique, who is already deeply unhappy, races out of the hospital with what

the audience must assume is guilt and shame. She runs to a train station while the camera moves frantically around her, supposedly voicing her mental anguish for sake of the viewer. Because of these frenetic movements and lack of explanation as to her destination, the audience is not aware of what Veronique’s destination is until her arrival. Her journey to the train station is condensed into a few seconds. The shot and editing techniques make her journey seem more important rather than it would have had the camera followed her in a more conventional fashion. The irrelevant time and action in her run to the train station has been eliminated as it is not necessary to our understanding of what’s happening and adds nothing to the current events. When she arrives at the train station the shots that follow lead us to assume, for a few seconds, that Veronique has leapt in front of a train. Veronique puts her hands over her face and there is then a shot of someone falling in front of the train from the perspective of the person who is falling. Assuming for a moment that Veronique had in fact jumped, it would be prudent to discuss the jump-cut contained in the scene. The audience does not see the jump but goes from an extreme close up of Veronique with her hands over her face to hands stretched out as she apparently falls. We do not see the jump itself but what happens during and a very quick shot of the supposed aftermath. Because of the frenetic movements of the camera and liberal use of extreme close ups during this scene, we are not aware of what is truly happening until the camera slows down and the viewer is able to piece together what has just occurred. If one re-watches the scene, the shots of the phantom fall are book-ended by close ups of Veronique with her hands over her face and the viewer must assume, that since she is where she was before the “fall” that she imagined it, a scenario, which becomes clear upon review. This segment is an example of unconventional narrative. It causes the audience to be confused and slightly lost as to what exactly is occurring. This sort of narrative device puts the audience into Veronique’s currently fragmented state of mind and is rather beneficial to our sympathy with her character. The narrative than segues back into more conventional cause and effect territory. Veronique turns and realizes there is a child about to be hit by a car; she runs over and gets the child out of the way before it’s too late. However, the imminent danger to the child is not immediately apparent and the camera movements are too fast for the audience to have more than a passing inclination of what’s happening until after it has happened. This effect is attained in much the same way Veronique’s “jump” was with extreme close-ups and frantic movement.

In terms of the ideological meaning of the aforementioned narrative choices, one can look at it this way: Veronique’s apparently selfish decision to jump in front of a train is counteracted when she saves the child. In the soviet context this scene decries Veronique’s would-be selfish actions but she is redeemed when she saves the child; this ties in with the communist ideal that the whole is more important than the sum of the parts. Veronique’s actions in this scene uphold state ideologies when looked at this way. Further, when Veronique gets the child out of the way, the camera’s movements become less frenzied and more cohesive thereby restoring a more classical form of narrative.

Another aspect of this is to consider that the film usually only engages in unconventional forms of narrative in moments of extreme emotion or tragedy. A scene near the beginning when Veronique realizes her apartment building has been hit by a bomb during the air raid can be analyzed in much the same way as the train station scene; it is filled with the same confusion and frenzy.

The scene of the bombed out apartment undercuts the preconceived patriotism already apparent. Throughout the film the focus tends to be on the sum parts of the whole rather than the whole. Its focus is almost completely on Veronique, even Boris is given very little screen time in contrast, which makes the film unique for a war film and a Soviet film. The emphasis is on individual desire. There are several points in the film where Veronique must force her way though crowds in order to get to Boris and each time she does this, Boris is not there. This occurs three times, the first two in close proximity and the third in the last scene of the film. The people she forces her way through appear as a nuisance, they won’t get out of the way and Veronique must be very physical in order to get through. This is a rather dramatic undercut of Soviet ideology where Veronique is favored above everyone else and the audience can feel only contempt for the people who are inadvertently keeping her from Boris. In contrast Boris is upholding the soviet ideal by volunteering to go to war for the good of the state and yet his decision is against Veronique’s wishes. Mark also stands in sharp contrast to Boris. Mark manages to stay out of the war and he is portrayed as a rather mindless and inconsiderate sort of person who Veronique eventually leaves.

In the end the Soviet ideal is upheld with the final scene of Veronique handing out flowers to the crowd of soldiers newly returned from the war and their families. She is no longer shoving people out of the way but walking among them slowly, giving them flowers. Veronique is resigned to Boris’s fate and the film indicates that it is no longer focused on her and the sum part becomes the whole. The film manages to balance Soviet and counter-Soviet ideals to create a mostly cohesive narrative which utilizes unconventional forms to convey emotion and confirm or deny communist principals. They work in harmony and neither confirm nor deny a Soviet or counter-Soviet stance until the end of the film when it ultimately upholds the communist ideal.


3 Responses to “The Cranes Are Flying – Narrative and its Implications”

  1. Vanwall Says:

    Excellent analysis! The aspect of foreshadowing is cleverly used, as well – when Boris and Veronica are hanging the black-out blanket in her bedroom, she discusses her wedding dress and pushes Boris’s chin so he sees her grandparent’s wedding picture on the wall – when Boris imagines their wedding as he is dying, they are dressed exactly as in the picture; in that same last dream, Boris’s father is carrying the “medicinal” alcohol bottle he poured from when Boris was hastily leaving for the war – Boris was remembering the exact last thing his father, Fyodor Ivanovich, offered him. In addition, during the crowd scene where Veronica and Boris are desperately seeking each other to say goodbye before he leaves, many of the couples in the crowd there are once again in the last scenes at the train station, where Veronica hands some of them flowers after she learns of Boris’s death.

    The use of stairs and multiple levels starts practically at the beginning and is used to advance the storyline – when a set of stairs appears, you can expect something important to happen – even in little gestures, such as when Fyodor Ivanovich stops Veronica as she hurries upstairs, so she can hear about the terrible betrayal by Mark.

    Much of the meaning of this film resonates with Russian viewers in ways we probably can’t fathom, especially those who lived through the war – I was told by my Russian language teacher in high school that the colloquialisms and slang were a revelation for everyone back then, and she was amazed that a Soviet-made film had them at all. She was also impressed with the element of questioning that seemed to run throughout the film – one was encouraged to shut up and not question anything during that period, and the film often questioned even the littlest things, many by visual treatment rather than a direct statement.

    I’m not so sure the ending is strictly a communist ideal – nationalist, certainly, and more of a Mother Russia finale, I think.

  2. Michael Tim Says:

    I love your site!

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  3. Topsoil Says:

    Thank you for the advice. I’ve found your first point to be most effective.

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