Tatyana Samoilova obituary: Star of ‘The Cranes are Flying’, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and changed perceptions of the Soviet Union


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In 1957 Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letyat Zhuravli (“The Cranes are Flying”) rocked Soviet cinema and changed the West’s view of the Soviet Union.

Here was a film with real, flawed people, that discussed petty corruption, cowardice and betrayal, and had virtuoso camerawork way beyond anything seen in the West. It became a cornerstone of “The Thaw”, Khrushchev’s period of relative liberality. Central to the phenomenon was the film’s star, Tatyana Samoilova.

Samoilova’s father was the well-known actor Yevgeny Samoilov, and she studied music with her mother. The family was largely untouched by the purges, even though there was an additional danger in his wife being Jewish.

During the siege of Leningrad the family moved to Moscow, where Tatyana studied ballet at the Stanislavsky School, after which Maya Plisetskaya offered her a place at the Bolshoi. However Samoilova decided to study acting at the Shchukin Theatrical School, during which time she made her film debut in Meksikanets (The Mexican, 1955). Two years later she would take the role that, even had she done nothing else, would mark her place in world cinema.

Samoilova saw Veronika, heroine of The Cranes are Flying, as “a pure person whom it was wrong to hurt of offend, deprived of all her innocence by one catastrophe after another who died a little bit every day of the war.” She watches her fiancé Boris march off to war, is raped by his draft-dodging cousin Mark, whom she then inexplicably marries, loses her parents in a bombing raid, and is only reconciled to Boris’s death at the end of the film.

This was neither a strapping one-dimensional Soviet heroine, nor an idealised view of Russian femininity. With an elfin face that registered every lightning change of mood, her lithe movements and tight sweater, she was erotic, even sexy. Kalatozov doesn’t explain why she marries Mark while still loving Boris, and refuses to judge what would once have been denounced as betrayal, preferring to let the audience come to their own conclusions.

Samoilova entranced everyone. She won awards at various festivals and in East Germany was presented with a watch bearing the inscription “At long last we see on the Soviet screen not a mask, but a face, most important of all in today’s world.” At Cannes, where the film won the Palme d’Or, the photographers let their cameras hang about the necks, breaking into spontaneous applause.

Offers came from Hollywood, and there was talk of a French Anna Karenina, but the Soviet authorities forbade them all. Instead, Samoilova returned to acting school and joined the Mayakovsky and Vakhtangov theatres. At the same time her brief first marriage, to her great love, the actor Vasili Lanovoy, came to an end. Samoilova always regretted her decision to terminate a pregnancy that would have given them twins. She had a boy by her second husband, the writer Valeri Osipov, though it was not a love-match – and they had been told that it was medically impossible.

Her next film was another collaboration with Kalatozov and his cameraman Sergey Urusevsky, Neotpravlennoe Pismo (The Unsent Letter, 1959), about a disastrous geological expedition to Siberia. Though not quite as stylish as Cranes, it stands way above her next few international co-productions. In the travelogue-ish comedy Leon Garros Ishchayet Druga (20,000 Leagues Across the Land, 1960), a French journalist visits Moscow, though Samoilova gets top billing as a singer who entertains the workers building a giant dam. She makes her entrance by entrancing a photographer on the Moscow Metro escalator.

That year Samoilova lost her job at the Mayakovsky Theatre, and worked only intermittently for the next few years. She was always sickly, which further interrupted her career. She did, however, star in Alba Regia, a Hungarian love drama set during the Second World War, which also provided the background for Italiani Brava Genti (Attack and Retreat, 1965).

Not everyone had been taken with The Cranes or the character of Veronika. The director Alexander Zarkhi felt she had lacked “the spirit of our times”, and perhaps that was behind his casting of Samoilova in her other career-defining role, in Anna Karenina (1967).

It was one of several Soviet super-productions of the time – but, though not all have worn well, Samoilova is still widely considered the definitive Anna. Part of the chemistry undoubtedly comes from the fact that Vronsky was played by her first husband, Lanovoy, while the choreographer was Samoilova’s ballet mentor Plisetskaya.

The best of her 1970s work came in Brillianty dlya Diktatury Proletariata (Diamonds for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, 1977), a popular Estonian film about the Bolsheviks’ attempts to prevent the Romanovs’ jewellery being smuggled out of the country after the Civil War.

Her last role was in the futuristically culty Nirvana (2008): two steampunk/new-Romantic hedonist young women are caught up in Petersburg’s underworld, and have to find a ransom for their the kidnapped junkie boyfriend they share. Almost unrecognisable under thick make-up and super-sized eye-lashes, Samoilova sits in her flat beneath a small photograph of herself in her breakthrough role.

Tatyana Evgenievna Samoilova, actress: born Leningrad 4 May 1934; married four times (one son); died Moscow 4 May 2014.