It’s rare that we’re gifted a peek behind the Iron Curtain, either today or yesteryear. The Cranes Are Flying, released in 1957, served as a seminal moment in Russian cinematic history, allowing audiences both homegrown and foreign to recognise the colossal toll that World War Two inflicted on people in an individual and a collective sense. Its director, Mikhail Kalatozov, would go on to establish himself as one of the most important filmmakers of the Soviet era.

The narrative focuses on Veronika (Tatyana Samoylova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov), a pair of young lovebirds who have their whole lives ahead of them. Several scenes of romantic bliss establish their devotion to one another, although shadows are already beginning to loom over their happiness in the shape of a war that creeps ever closer and a cousin of Boris who clearly harbours affections for Veronika and has no qualms about stepping on the toes of his kith and kin. When the conflict does finally arrive at their doorstep, Boris immediately volunteers; by a cruel twist of fate and unfortunate timing, the pair are denied even a parting farewell.

If their separation is inevitable, the heartbreak that besets Veronika is equally so. This is a character study of a societal problem, examining how the disastrous effects of senseless warfare can impact upon the psyche of a single individual. Not long after Boris’ conscription, Veronika loses her family and is forced to move in with her fiancé’s nearest and dearest. Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), the unscrupulous cousin, then asserts himself as her new beau by force, the shift managed in a particularly effective and affecting scene which leaves plenty open to audience interpretation.

It’s this delicate handling of the storyline and of the emotions of each character within it that is most noticeable about The Cranes, especially given that it springs from a hitherto publicly restrained society. The other striking element is Sergey Urusevskiy’s innovative cinematography. By all accounts, the man was an obstinate perfectionist; in one illuminating extra on the DVD, a crew member reveals that Urusevskiy once cancelled a full day’s shoot because the right shaped cloud failed to materialise in the sky.

Some of his shots are just as effective as they must have been in his heyday; the movement of the camera in particular seems to predate the use of drones by several decades, while the aforementioned pivotal scene where Veronika effectively becomes Mark’s property is artfully handled. Others don’t quite stand the test of time, but even those that appear dated still showcase a talent that must have been ground-breaking at the film’s release.

Besides bold direction and avant-garde camerawork, The Cranes is also notable for a stand-out performance from Samoylova in the central role. With the camera glued to her facial expressions for much of the film, she does an exemplary job of demonstrating how the war has dulled her emotions and sapped her spirit, which only flares into life on a handful of emotive moments.

Other extras included on this Criterion Collection release include an insightful snippet of an audio interview with Kalatozov, a modern-day view of the film’s impact from film scholar Ian Christie and various other bits and bobs that will interest those fascinated by Soviet cinema. But the DVD’s greatest strength is, of course, the film itself; though perhaps not quite as emotionally affecting as something like Life Is Beautiful, The Cranes Are Flying is still a damning indictment of the cruelty of war and an illuminating look at the beating heart of the Soviet everyman.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion on Tue 24 March 2020