Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Monday, 21 October 2013

That Russian trio ...

When I was in my teens in the late '50s/early '60s there were some highly praised Russian films that got awards at Film Festivals and were very highly rated, written about in the magazines, classic art-house movies of the time, at the height of the Cold War showing that the Russians were just like us, with their loves and dreams. I never got to see them then, but finally have now, so let's look at BALLAD OF A SOLDIER, THE CRANES ARE FLYING and THE LETTER THAT WAS NOT SENT.

BALLAD OF A SOLDIER. In the middle of the Second World War, Alyosha (Vladimir Ivashov) is commended for destroying two German tanks. Rather than a medal, he requests a four-day pass to visit his mother, and repair her roof. The film is about his journey across a battle-scarred Russia, the people he meets, and the girl he connects with .... 
Time though runs out and he only gets to see his mother for a few minutes before he has to return ...
Produced in 1959, Grigory Chukhrai's timeless tale is still relevant today, with so many soldiers not returning home from whatever conflicts that are going on. We are told at the start that our hero is already dead, buried far away where strangers lay flowers at his grave .... we feel for the mother (Antonnia Maximova) waiting for the son who does not return, having lost her husband too. 
The film has that lovely lyrical look, Chukhrai is a terrific film-maker with great visual style. Ivashov is a delight as the young soldier (the scene where he outwits the enemy tanks is both funny and thrilling), and Zhanna Prokhorenko is a lovely heroine, their brief time together is a tender romance. 
Add in the venal guardian of the train compartment, the crippled handsome soldier (Nikolai Kriuchkov) unsure of whether to return to his wife, the other wife Alyoshi has to visit who has found someone else, and the suffering of the various folk we meet along the way ... BALLAD OF A SOLDIER is not a Cold War propaganda vehicle but a sympathetic look at flawed, suffering human individuals, trying to survive the catastropnhic upheaval in which they find themselves. Few films show the futility of war more. I like it a lot.

THE CRANES ARE FLYING, 1957. Mikhail Kalatozov's lyrical portrait of lives torn apart by war is the only Soviet film to have won the Palme d'Or. the Cannes Film Festival's highest honour. The fates of young lovers Boris and Veronika are drastically changed by the outbreak of the Second World War when Boris is called up to fight on the front line. A desolate Veronika, superbly played by Tatiana Samoilova, must learn to carry on without him - coping with the apartment block she lives in being bombed, working as a nurse, resisting other men's blandishments, and that climax at the crowded railway station where she finally realises Boris is not coming home, as she hands out flowers, its very affecting. The beautifully photographed and subtly powerful film higlights the war's devastating effect on the Russian people. 
There is much to admire, the vital performances, the black and white camerawork, the urgent crowd scenes, and yes, the shots of those cranes flying far away ...

THE LETTER THAT WAS NOT SENT, 1959. Also by Mikhail Kalatozov, and again starring Tatiana Samoilova.
Four geologists are searching for diamonds in the wilderness of Siberia. After a long and tiresome journey they manage to find the diamonds and put the mine on a map which must be delivered back to Moscow. But on the day of their departure a terrible forest fire wreaks havoc, and the geologists get trapped in the woods. Its as if, as they say, "nature has turned against them" as they combat fire, rain, snow and that freezing Siberian winter ...
It is fascinating now to see that in that great year 1959, that New Wave that burst upon the French, Italian, British and American cinema also hit Russia - with this and BALLAD OF A SOLDIER, this is another dynamic, lyrical film, focusing on human suffering and endurance. Like that other great Russian discovery of mine last year, THE MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA (Russian label), this is another film of astounding powerful and unique visuals, cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky. It is initially a love triangle between Samoilova and two of the men. Soon the four are trapped in an enormous forest fire. It then becomes a desperate tale of survival - who, if any, will survive? First, one get killed, and another injured one, being carried by the other two, does the noble thing, leaving the final two to trek on .... by the time a helicopter arrives is it too late on that freezing ice floe ? This still plays terrifically now, and would be an interesting revival on the big screen.

There was also Bernhard Wicki's THE BRIDGE also 1959, but that was a German production .... I might get to see it sometime.

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