Few films have transformed the aesthetic practices of a national film industry as radically or quickly as The Cranes Are Flying, which was produced four years after Stalin died. Stalinist war films were characterized by frontline action directed by omniscient generals, monumental heroes, patriotic chauvinism, and slavish obedience to state propaganda. Kalatozov shifted the focus to the homefront, to the ordinary individual, to personal allegiances and to private truths, all of which would become the hallmarks of the aesthetic practice associated with Khrushchev's "Thaw." Urusevskii's startling camerawork -- a mobile and spinning camera, unusual angle shots, and broad close-ups -- marked a return to the bravura cinematography of Soviet cinema in the 1920s, breaking with the Stalinist tradition of static shots. The film's heroine, Veronika, fails to arrive in time to say farewell to her fiancé, Boris, as he sets off for the war. When her family is killed during a bombardment, she moves in with Boris' family, where she is violently seduced by Mark, Boris's cousin, whom she then marries. Kalatozov deliberately invokes the Stalinist cliché that a woman's faithfulness is the sole guarantee of her soldier-husband's survival: Boris is killed at the front. But Kalatozov consistently refuses to judge Veronika, who is portrayed as the powerless victim, both of her immediate circumstances and of historical forces. This suspension of judgment, together with the film's focus on personal dilemmas and private lives, made the film immensely popular both domestically (more than 28 million Soviets saw within three months of its 1957 opening) and abroad -- the film was awarded the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958, where Samoilova was also awarded as best actress for the role that made her a cult figure in Soviet cinema.
Born 1903 in Tiblisi, Georgia, Mikhail Kalatozov debuted in 1930 with the poetic documentary Salt For Svanetia. His next film, A Nail in the Boot (1931) was banned, and he was assigned to administrative duties. He moved back into production with The Conspiracy of the Damned, for which he won the Stalin Prize in 1951. The Cranes Are Flying and The Letter That Was Never Sent (1960) were made in collaboration with the brilliant director of photography Sergei Urusevskii with whom he went to Cuba in 1963, for the ambitious coproduction I Am Cuba. The film was rejected by the governments of both countries for "formalist excess", and remained unknown for over 30 years but is now recognized as a masterpiece; its US release in the 90s was "presented by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese." Kalatozov's final work, about a failed Arctic airship expedition, The Red Tent (1970) starred Sean Connery, Peter Finch and Claudia Cardinale. He died three years later in Moscow.