Soviet films flummoxed me a couple years ago. But this one charmed me.
Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) are Muscovite sweethearts in the summer of 1941, just before the USSR enters the Second World War. They still live with their respective families, three floors apart from each other in the same building, but are old enough that both families have started expecting a proposal soon. But for now the lovers content themselves with sneaking out at dawn to watch the sunrise, cavort in the park, and watch cranes in flight before sneaking home back to their respective beds.
After one such meeting, Boris gets an urgent wake-up from his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) – the Germans have just invaded on the Western border. In a flush of patriotism, he volunteers for the army – even though it means he’ll ship out on Veronika’s birthday. He urges his family to give her his gift – a stuffed toy squirrel, into which he has tucked a love note. Veronika rushes to the army’s assembly station hoping to see him off, but just misses him; both families begin the long wait for war’s end.
War is hell, however, both on the battlefield and on the home front. Veronika’s parents are killed during an air raid, and Boris’ family takes her in. When she freaks out during another air raid, Mark – who’s always had a crush on her – takes advantage of her panic and rapes her. Boris, meanwhile, goes missing during a scouting mission and no one seems to know where he is; and instead of being able to wait for him in Moscow, Veronika and Boris’ family are all relocated to Siberia; Veronika is now married to Mark, having been pressured into it after Mark’s indiscretion. Still, she holds out hope that somehow – someday – she will hear from Boris again.
It’s admittedly a sentimental plot, and uses several of the same cinematographic tricks from earlier Soviet propaganda films that left me cold. But here, they simply work. The camerawork isn’t in defense of a heady socio-political message; it’s in service to a poignant love story. There’s a sequence mid-film, where we see Boris on the battlefield and he’s shot – as he loses consciousness, he hallucinates himself back at home, he and Veronika happily skipping down their apartment building stairs on their way to their wedding. It’s poignantly dreamlike – lots of closeups of happy family members, Veronika beaming at him, her veil swirling about them both. Later, Veronika has a weak moment in Siberia and considers killing herself – her mad dash to the train station is shot with a shaky hand-held camera, following the rush of her steps as she runs.
But the chemistry between Samoilova and Batalov is what really sells this film. Samoilova in particular – Veronika is a bubbly, spunky thing at the very start of the movie, and Boris is clearly wrapped around her finger. They clearly love each other – but they also clearly have enormous fun with each other, and it’s amazingly endearing to watch – which makes the wartime tragedies that befall them both all the sadder. Samoilova does equally well selling the sadder moments of Veronika’s story later; Veronika is thrown by some bad news towards the film’s end, but instead of going into histrionics, she just steps into another room to collect herself, then steps back out, resigned, and gets back to what she was doing.
The whole film feels like a big breath of fresh air as well, possibly because this was one of the first Soviet films made after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly denounced his predecessor, Josef Stalin, and the iron grasp he’d had on Soviet life. Under Stalin, filmmakers had to put a positive spin on Soviet life, and their films had to hew close to a party line; under Khruschev, however, filmmakers could finally acknowledge the losses of the Second World War. They could also tell stories of ordinary people instead of praising historic leaders. Director Mikhail Kalatozov jumped at the chance to do both with this film, to lovely effect.