At the 1958 Cannes film festival, in a competition that included films by Ingmar Bergman, Jacques Tati and Satyajit Ray, the Palme d'Or was presented to Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying, the first and last Soviet film ever to have won it, and a special mention was given to Tatiana Samoilova, its captivating 23-year-old star.
Samoilova, who has died from coronary heart disease aged 80, became the centre of media attention, her elfin beauty prompting many to call her the "Russian Audrey Hepburn". Unlike the stereotypical western vision of Soviet womanhood – hefty, heroic, smiling tractor-drivers among the corn – derived from years of socialist realist films, Samoilova came as a revelation. Here was a seductive, sensitive and serious young woman with whom international audiences could sympathise. At the time, Samoilova was given a watch by East German fans during a festival with the inscription: "Finally we see on the Soviet screen a face, not a mask."
In The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Samoilova played Veronica, a young hospital worker who hears that her fiance (Alexei Batalov) has been killed in the war, though she refuses to believe it. Yet bitter circumstances drive her to marry a man (Alexander Shvorin) she does not love. In the cinema under Stalin, the trauma of the second world war, in which one in 10 Russians lost their lives, had been represented as a patriotic, collective duty from which individual suffering was excluded. In Samoilova's tender performance, far from the traditional wartime heroine, Veronica's suffering is very much personalised among the devastation that war has wrought. The film also refuses to condemn Veronica for her infidelity while her fiance is at the front.
Samoilova was born in Leningrad, the daughter of Yevgeni Samoilov, a leading Soviet stage and screen actor, and Zinaida Levin. She was also the great niece of the director Konstantin Stanislavsky, and graduated from the ballet school of the Stanislavsky theatre. Although invited by prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya to join the ballet school of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Samoilova chose to study acting.
While still a student, Samoilova made her first film appearance, in The Mexican (1955), based on a story by Jack London. The Cranes Are Flying was only her second film. Kalatozov followed it up with another cinematically stunning movie, Letter Never Sent, aka The Unmailed Letter (1959), which tells of a guide and three geologists on an expedition in a harsh landscape to find diamonds in the wilderness of the Central Siberian Plateau. The attractive Samoilova, as the only female, causes sexual tensions between the guide (Yevgeni Urbansky) and another geologist (Vasili Livanov).
Samoilova's next films were routine second world war Soviet co-productions – Alba Regia (Hungarian, 1961) and Attack and Retreat (Italian, 1964) – that gave her little chance to shine, until Anna Karenina (1967), her best role since The Cranes Are Flying 10 years previously.
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Praised at Cannes in 1958 for being "modest and charming," Samoilova was best known for her award-winning role in "The Cranes Are Flying." Russian actress Tatiana Samoilova, best known for her role as Vera in Mikhail Kolotozov's Cannes Palme d'Or-winning Soviet war film The Cranes Are Flying has died at the age of 80.
Samoilova, who won acclaim at Cannes in 1958 for being the "most modest and charming actress," died in Moscow early Monday of heart failure just hours after her 80th birthday.
The delicate beauty born in Leningrad May 4, 1934, took up ballet as a child before later studying acting at top theater schools in Moscow, including the famous Stanislavsky academy.