But after Stalin's death in 1953 things eased up. Not just for Soviet cinema but for the Soviet Union at large. The horrible years of Stalin's show trials, mass killings, famine and forced starvation (millions of people were killed often for no other reason than that their deaths pleased Stalin) was replaced with the, comparatively speaking, lighter touch of Nikita Khrushchev. Especially after Khrushchev's speech in 1956 denouncing the homicidal madness of Stalin's year. The so-called Thaw appeared, and Soviet cinema was given a chance to expand somewhat. It was still under strict rules, political control and censorship, but it was freer than under Stalin. The Thaw lasted roughly until 1964, when Khrushchev was disposed of and replaced with Leonid Brezhnev.
The most significant film of those years was also the film that signalled to the world that a new era had begun, The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov 1957), which won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 1958. It was a film about the Second World War, as was almost all of the famous films from those years, including Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai 1959), Fate of a Man (Sergei Bondarchuk 1959), Ivan's Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky 1962) and Father of a Soldier (Revaz Chkheidze 1964). They combine emotionally powerful stories with a poetic sensibility, visually, and are a far cry from the stiffness and stuffiness of Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), the previous Soviet war film of note. Although, despite what Bordwell and Thompson refer to as "mammoth battle sequences" in their Film History: An Introduction, they contain very little actual warfare. They are more concerned with what happens away from the front.
Fate of a Man
The Cranes are Flying is about a happy young couple who are separated when he unexpected enlists and goes off to the front where he is killed. But focus is on her life at home, unwillingly marrying the cousin of her fiancé and living with her in-laws until she finally breaks free. Ballad of a Soldier is about a young radio operator who, after having almost by accident destroyed two German tanks, is given a leave to go home to see his mother. On his way home he meets a young girl and falls in love, as does she, but they have precious little time together. Fate of a Man, perhaps the best of them, is a story of a man's tragic story during the war and in a German prison camp until he adopts a little boy after the armistice. Ivan's Childhood is undoubtedly the most famous one today, because of Tarkovsky, and is about a young boy being used to spy on the Germans and his present situation is peppered with dreams and flashbacks to a happier time before the war. Father of a Soldier finally is about an old man searching for his son and always arriving too late. The son was wounded and hospitalised and that is where the father went first, but the son had been discharged and returned to his unite so the father eventually becomes a soldier at the frontline himself, killing Germans whilst looking for the son.
The films are rather similar in tone and feelings. While not exactly propaganda for the Communist government and the state they are about men who sign up and are killed with a firm belief in the righteousness of the cause and the wisdom of their leaders. There is none of the anger, cynicism or criticism of their American war films such as Attack! (Robert Aldrich 1956) or Hell is for Heroes (Don Siegel 1962). What there is though is a sadness and world-weariness. Where they differ most from one another is in the visual style. The Cranes are Flying, shot by Sergey Urusevskiy, has an impressionistic look and editing technique. It is somewhat reminiscent of Andrzej Wajda's Polish films of the 1950s and the coming French New Wave. Ballad of a Soldier, shot by Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva, looks more like earlier work of Alexander Dovzhenko, with a touch of John Ford. Fate of a Man, shot by Vladimir Monakhov, is full of tricks, some of which are more successful than others, but is on the whole rather dynamic and visually exciting. Father of a Soldier, shot by Archil Pilipashvili and Lev Sukhov, has some extraordinary images but is the least distinguished. Ivan's Childhood, shot by Vadim Yusov, is more sombre and has shots that linger longer than in the other films. It is on every level a more calm and relaxed film whereas the others are more edgy and nervous. It is sometimes unclear whether their editing patterns and abrupt tonal shifts are deliberate or amateurish. All of them have rather ambitious goals in terms of style and capturing larger truths about humanity, but Tarkovsky here seems to be the one most at ease with the scope of the undertaking. The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier and Father of a Soldier are filled with contrived situations and coincidences created primarily to make the audience cry, which is why I prefer Tarkovsky's and Bondarchuk's two films, which also happens to be the first features of either director. The characters in their films are also more complex. Ballad of a Soldier in particular has such immaculate main characters it borders on the ridiculous although the chaste love between two apple-cheeked teenagers is quite sweet. (Pauline Kael was not impressed by The Cranes are Flying or Ballad of a Soldier, calling them "good examples of nineteenth-century patriotism and nineteenth-century family values" when "authority was good, only people without principles thought about sex, and it was the highest honor to fight and die for your country." in her essay "Fantasies of the Art-House Audience".)
There were not only films about the Second World War that were being made of course. There were adaptations of Shakespeare and Cervantes. There was the musical comedy Carnival Night (1956). (It was produced by Mosfilm, which also produced The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, Fate of a Man and Ivan's Childhood. Father of a Soldier was produced by Grusia Film and Qartuli Pilmi, it is a Georgian production.) The Rumyantsev Case (Iosif Kheifits 1956) was a crime story, Lesson of Life (Yuli Raizman 1955) was about a married couple and their everyday concerns, Amphibian Man (Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennadi Kazansky 1962) was a science fiction story and the most successful domestic film in Soviet of 1962 (although less popular than The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges 1960)). Elem Klimov, who is today famous for the brutal war film Come and See (1985), began his career making satirical comedies, such as his first feature Welcome, or No Trespassing (1964). But that was towards the very end of the Thaw and things started to become ever more constricted and laborious. Two of the most unique filmmakers who just about managed to get started until the Thaw was over, Andrei Konchalovsky and Sergei Paradjanov, both saw several of their films cut, be censured or banned. But their careers are largely outside the scope of this article. Sergei Bondarchuk and Andrei Tarkovsky continued to do impressive work, including Bondarchuk's epic series based on Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace, but filmmaking would not be the same after 1965.
Filmmaking in a time and place of dictatorship is never easy, and making films that did not satisfy the Politburo or the commissariat was not possible in Soviet, not before, after or during the Thaw. Any film made in Soviet needs to be considered with that in mind. But even if there was plenty of restrictions and plenty of propaganda during the years of the Thaw too there was just a little less of it, and it was possible to create something both beautiful and meaningful.
The Cranes are Flying
A link to my earlier article about Andrei Tarkovsky: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.se/2012/04/andrei-tarkovsky.html