At the age of 23, Tatiana Samoilova was given a special mention at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival for her role in The Cranes Are Flying (1957), the only Soviet or Russian film ever to have won the Palme d’Or. Samoilova, who died on 4 May 2014 from heart complications, was one of the best-known actresses of post-Thaw, Soviet cinema, a pixie-faced beauty who was regularly compared to Audrey Hepburn. In The Cranes Are Flying, her most famous film, Samoilova plays Veronica, a young woman whose fiancé Boris dies in the Second World War. Her impassioned and candid performance was unusual for the time, setting a new tone for cinematic depictions of sensitive topics such as the trauma of war. 

The Cranes Are Flying was directed by Georgian avant-garde filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov, who started out making documentaries before Soviet censors banned his work in the 1930s. A period of making propaganda films followed and it wasn’t until Stalin’s death in 1953 that Kalatozov returned to making the type of films for which he is celebrated today. The Cranes Are Flying not only marked a break with Socialist Realism but also demonstrated to the outside world that Soviet culture was not all bleak labour camps, as depicted by Cold War propagandists. The film followed Nikita Krushchev’s speech in 1956 in which he denounced both Stalin’s crimes and the cult of personality, which in turn led to a cultural thaw. Against this backdrop, The Cranes Are Flying was able to adopt a radically new perspective on the Great Patriotic War, the Russian term for the Second World War.

Firstly, it underplayed the heroism associated with war by portraying the harsh realities and suffering that came with battle through flesh-and-blood characters. Though Boris, played by Aleksey Batalov, patriotically volunteers for war, the anxiety felt both by him and Veronica is palpable. In this way, the film was starkly different to its contemporaries, in particular the Stalinist super-production, The Fall of Berlin (1950), which similarly follows a couple separated by war. The film’s bombastic rhetoric sees Stalin as the figure responsible for reuniting the couple after the war.

The Cranes Are Flying (1957), dir. by Mikhail Kalatozov

The Forty-First (1956) by Grigori Chukhrai also attempted to challenge this positivist reading of the war but instead through melodrama and kitschy cliches. By contrast, The Cranes Are Flying lays bare the tragedy of war with its uncompromising plot: Veronica is raped by Boris’s cousin Mark whom she later agrees to marry in a moment of despair. Unlike The Fall of Berlin, there is no happy ending: the lovers in this film are never reunited and Veronica is perceived by Boris’s family as unfaithful.

Unlike Socialist Realist films, in which the hero was always the collective, Kalatozov placed the individual front and centre. The result was to induce a level of emotion unknown to the Soviet audience. Samoilova’s Veronica was an especially novel character, a million miles away from the typical war heroine. Neither a slave to Boris nor the Communist Party, her decision to marry Mark failed to ingratiate her with many viewers. Moreover, her unconcealed grief over Boris’s death was considered inappropriate by the then state committee for cinematography. Despite the film’s overall break with tradition, a heart-broken Veronica pledges to devote her life to the nation, a response more fitting to Socialist Realist cinema — a sign that perhaps Soviet cinema wasn’t quite ready for an adventurous ending to match the plot.

I Am Cuba (1964), dir. by Mikhail Kalatozov

Aesthetically the film looks back to the pre-war, Soviet avant-garde but also draws on the work of neo-realist directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica. The film’s cinematography also broke new ground. Kalatozov collaborated with master cameraman Sergey Urusevsky who used emotion-arousing techniques unseen in previous Soviet war films: juxtaposition, long takes and close ups to name a few. It was in the close-ups that Samoilova excelled with her ability to express even the subtlest oscillations of the soul just by lifting her eyebrow.

The same trio — Samoilova-Kalatozov-Urusevsky — collaborated again in Letter Never Sent (1959), a dramatic tale of four geologists searching for diamonds in the Siberian wilderness. But it was Kalatozov’s epic, three-hour, visually dazzling film, I Am Cuba (1964), that was his closing masterpiece. Shot against a breath-taking Cuban backdrop, this lyrical film is a tribute to the emancipatory power of the Castro revolution and those who sacrificed their lives to fight oppression. From Cuban women standing up to patriarchal violence to peasants fighting landlords, the film is interspersed with scenes from Havana’s bars, bursting with jazz and the rumba. Kalatozov died in 1973, leaving behind a small but impressive selection of films. Similarly Samoilova will forever be associated with her stellar performance as Veronica in The Cranes Are Flying. With new editions of the film regularly relesed both Kalatozov and Samoilova will continued to be remembered for generations to come for their role in turning Soviet cinema on its head. 

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