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Issue 02, Volume 01


by Ariel Courage

If you’ve spent any time haunting the website of the cinephile DVD company Criterion Collection, you may have stumbled across the name Larisa Shepitko. Two of her films, Wings (1966) and The Ascent (1973), have recently enjoyed something of a small-scale revival, thanks to a restored 2008 DVD release on Eclipse, Criterion’s series of (relatively) cheap editions of hard-to-find films. Prior to this Shepitko’s oeuvre was rarely seen internationally or even in Russia, where she lived and worked; her films were archived and quietly forgotten after her early death in a car accident in 1979 at age 41. As Barbara Quart says, “seeing the films of Larisa Shepitko for the first time is a painful kind of discovery, because the more you admire her work, the greater the sense of loss.”

The trajectory of Shepitko’s career is engrossing but far too brief. Ukrainian by birth, at the age of 16 she applied to the prestigious All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow (VGIK), where the enrollment committee initially told her that directing was “too masculine a profession for a woman” and that since she was pretty she might try applying to the acting department instead. Luckily, Alexander Dovzhenko, director of the Soviet classic Earth (1930) and also of Ukrainian origin, was recruiting students for his workshop that year and, impressed with her ambition, admitted her to his course. Dovzhenko died before she completed his program, and she wound up graduating from the studio led by Mikhail Romm, another Soviet heavyweight filmmaker. She produced her first feature-length film, Heat, in 1963, as her thesis project. By the time she died at age 40, she had directed four feature films, a television movie, and one segment of a filmic omnibus in her lifetime, plus two shorts made as a student. That number may have been higher had she not run into difficulties with censorship.

Shepitko began her career in the midst of a shifting political and cultural environment in Russia. Stalin died in 1953. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, subsequently denounced Stalin’s political crimes, signifying the end of an era of strict ideological and creative oppression. This period of liberalization, fragmentation of Stalinism, and the relaxation of controls on personal expression became known as the Thaw, and had significant ramifications for Soviet film. Filmmakers replaced Communist party bureaucrats as managers in the industry, establishing a level of independence from the central government. Directors had more freedom to explore genres and styles outside of the strict tenets of Socialist Realism, a style of art designed to further the interests of Socialism. They were able to return to more personal themes and in-depth portraits of complicated subjects. Individual styles flourished during the Thaw, but there were a few common characteristics among many films of this era, including Shepitko’s: biblical imagery, disjointed narrative structure, and a tendency towards understatement. Soviet life, however, did not suddenly become a breeding ground for freedom of expression. Rigorous censorship and cultural control were still very much in effect; Khrushchev merely loosened Stalin’s vice grip.

1. Heat (Znoy), 1963, 85 min.

Shepitko was sent to Kyrgyzstan to produce her VGIK graduate thesis film, possibly in order to stimulate the development of a film industry in that territory. Heat was produced by Kirghizfilm Studios and based on a story by Chinghiz Aitmatov, a Soviet-Kyrgyz author. The film was controversial for its frank portrayal of generational conflicts and won a few domestic prizes. The plot centers on Abakir, a paragon of socialist virtue, and the conflicts he encounters with a younger, freer generation when a young student comes to work on his farm. They clash over the implementation of new agricultural techniques; while Abakir attempts to cull the favor of the state party authorities, the younger man truly believes in the development of the region, though many of his progressive methods clearly don’t work. Nature and landscape dominate the movie: the searing temperatures that scald the land drive the tension of human relationships to the boiling point and dictate farming methods more intensely than any party decree. The heat on set was genuinely severe: Shepitko fainted from heat exhaustion several times, and eventually became so ill that she had to direct from a stretcher carried around set. Though the film is no masterpiece, it contains many elements of Shepitko’s distinctive visual style: unusual low-angle shots of human subjects, black and white film, a shaky handheld camera on follow shots, provocative and thoughtful framing.

Elem Klimov, also a student at VGIK and later a highly respected director in his own right, helped her with the production of Heat; they married in 1963 after production finished.

2. Krylia (Wings), 1966, 85 minutes.

For her first professional feature post-graduation, Shepitko directed Wings with Mosfilm, the central studio of the Soviet Union. The story follows a former World War II bomber pilot turned headmistress of a technical school, Nadezhda Petrukhina, who is alienated from a society in which she is no longer relevant. She is unmarried, awkwardly estranged from her adopted daughter, and openly mocked by her students. There is nothing cruel or unlikable about her; she simply seems lonely. Her exclusion from contemporary society manifests itself visually in eerie shots of empty city streets or packed, claustrophobic, anonymous tramcars, contributing to an atmosphere of desperation and isolation.

Wings is beautiful and deceivingly quiet. It does not have a traditional narrative structure. Its tone is downbeat; disturbing scenes that underscore Nadezhda’s lonely vulnerability overshadow episodic moments of brief joy and humor. In one scene, Nadezhda cups fruit in her hands as she walks down the street. It begins to rain lightly. Smiling and apparently unperturbed by the weather, she extends her arms so her fruit can be washed. As she looks around her, she sees that everyone else is running indoors, leaving the street completely empty except for her. The vacant stone street reminds her of something from her past, and the scene transitions to one of her memories from the war. This sequence is filmed from Nadezhda’s perspective, and the camera’s slightly blurred, slowly wandering gaze tracks the movements of our heroine’s wartime lover, Dmitri. We hear Nadezhda laughing and see Dmitri smiling, but the crumbling ruins of their surroundings and the subdued music convey a deeper melancholy. Periodically Shepitko freeze-frames on Dmitri’s face, suggesting that the image has haunted Nadezhda since the war.

Shepitko presents Nadezhda with a few potential alternatives to her ambiguous role in society. At various points, friends and family address her femininity, reminding her that she looks young for her age and might remarry. She expresses some interest in reclaiming her womanhood through marriage, yet also continues to deny this possibility - she laughs at a man who asks her to dance and smiles when her daughter suggests that she find a husband. She dresses in plain, mannish clothing and sports a short, brutally practical haircut. She inspires ridicule rather than respect from almost everyone around her: at one point, a drunken stranger approaches her in a cafe and calls her a “simple Soviet woman.”

In a later scene, Nadezhda returns to the same cafe. Shura, a middle-aged waitress, allows her in, though the restaurant is closed. As Nadezhda eats her meal, the women talk and fondly reminisce about their schoolgirl days. Carried away by happy memories, they begin to sing and waltz around the restaurant, only to realize that they are being watched by groups of men crowding around the doors and windows. The scene would be humorous if Shepitko did not show multiple shots of the men watching silently, unmoving, with unreadable facial expressions. The repetition of the shots creates a small but peculiarly uncomfortable moment, where women are confined and observed even as they think they are alone and free.

It would be easy to read Nadezhda as merely an unfortunate product of the Soviet war mentality, a woman who spiritually “died in the war,” as she says towards the end of the film. She lives for practicality at the expense of personality, and “works for other people wherever needed, no picking and choosing,” as she tells her daughter. Soviet critics tended to claim that the film was primarily a reaction to post-war changes in female gender roles, and that Nadezhda was a tragic product of a certain period of history that promoted unfeminine qualities in women. Western critics, on the other hand, tended to interpret Wings as a criticism of women’s partial emancipation in Russia, and identified the tragedy not in Nadezhda herself but in the fact that society pressures her to abandon her ways, however outdated or unfeminine they may be. Neither interpretation is entirely accurate or complete. At one point Nadezhda mentions that she was considered “artistic” in high school, suggesting that the war permanently affected her, not that she was innately more suited to “masculine” professions. There is some tragedy to the suggestion that the war forever changed the course of her life. Thus it isn’t entirely true that she must repress her own desires to just to conform to modern life - she had to do the same as a military woman. Nadezhda increasingly recalls poignant memories where we see her flying planes against the vast open sky, a symbol of freedom. Yet it is also a symbol of death: her lover and fellow pilot is shot down in battle, and her plane ride in the final scene of the film is probably her final flight.

Shepitko describes her character in an interview thus: “She lives in concord with her conscience but the times but new criteria in front of her…the war has put its stamp on her thinking. Everything in wartime is brutal, definite, and clear - an enemy is an enemy, a coward is a coward. She had carried these theoretical judgments into civilian life and failed to realize that her swift decisions had turn into superficial decisions.” This description seems to carefully avoid the issue of gender and sex in a film where those issues are incredibly relevant.

But it is interesting to read Wings as a feminist film, especially in light of Shepitko’s personal life and experience. She seemed to hold gendered perspectives in disdain, and not only refused to recognize the concept of “women’s cinema,” but considered the notion to be humiliating. It seems likely that this vocal rejection stemmed from a fear of marginalization, of being ghettoized as merely a director of “women’s films,” particularly in a male-dominated industry. Soviet critics lauded her for her “manly touch,” for directing in a “severe, non-womanly way,” and for never demanding so-called “female privileges” for herself. These critics not only disassociated her from her gender but praised her for having attributes of the opposite sex.

So, in any case, Wings is fascinating not just for its unflinching psychological portrait of an unusual character and its visual beauty, but also its variously interpretable implications for women’s life in Russia - even the director’s own. The film was controversial and shown only in limited release. Critics found fault only with her negative depiction of a war veteran, not with any subversive feminist subtext or gendered critique of society.

After Wings, Shepitko directed a short part of a portmanteau film to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Shepitko based her sequence, Rodina elektrichestva (Homeland of Electricity, 1967), on a short story by Andrei Platonova that ambivalently portrays Bolshevik technological innovation. By 1967, Khrushchev had left office. The Thaw drew to a close once Brezhnev entered office, resulting in a return to conservative values and tighter censorship of cultural works. Party officials deemed Shepitko’s short work inappropriate and destroyed all copies of the film save one (which was re-released twenty years later during Glas’nost, a period of cultural relaxation). This was the first of Shepitko’s films to be banned outright. Her next work, the lighthearted, colorful, politically “safe,” made-for-television musical 13 P.M. (V trinadsatom chasu nochi, 1969), was likely an attempt to win back the favor of the censors. She also worked on the film Belorusskiy Vokzal (Belorussian Train Station, 1971), but when censors heard that she planned to change the optimistic tone of the original scenario into a bleak and tragic tale, Mosfilm Studios removed her from the project and replaced her with a less controversial director.

3. Ty i Ya (You and I), 1971, 97 min.

Shepitko’s third film is her only feature-length work shot in color, and also the first feature film for which she received writing credits. The movie follows two scientists battling existential ennui in cosmopolitan life. The protagonist, Petr, is widely regarded as a genius but has not fulfilled his potential. He developed a cure for a neurological disease through experimental treatments on canine subjects. Instead of working as a neurosurgeon and saving many lives, however, he has taken a glamorous but useless job in Stockholm. Dissatisfied with his work there, he returns to Moscow, where he suffers something resembling a mental breakdown and impulsively flees on a train to Kiev. Eventually he finds himself in Siberia and fulfills his proper role as a doctor.

The film is romantic and more hopeful about the human condition than Shepitko’s other films in part because it allows the possibility of redemption. But it doesn’t lack the philosophical depth of her other work. She addresses complex themes: talent in relation to personal development and public domain, the irreversibility of our choices, the nature of time.

Visually, the movie is a bit of a deviation from her two earlier films, and not only because of its lush color. It seems less controlled and deliberate, with shaky zooms and broader camera movements. Shepitko worked with different cinematographers on every film of her career; here she worked with Aleksandr Knyazhinsky, who later went on to work as the cinematographer for Andrei Tarksovsky’s Stalker (1979). In one of the most memorable sequences Petr’s best friend Alexander attends a Moscow circus with Petr’s ex-wife, Katya. The ringmaster calls for audience participants and Alexander volunteers himself. The performers mock him, make him ride in circles on a decorated pony, lock him into a hanging harness and swing him around over the heads of the spectators. The color blue dominates the scene, from the costumes of the clowns to Alexander’s blue jacket to the glaring lights overhead. The hand-held camera moves in rapidly blurring circles, compounding the sense of disorientation. Katya can’t bear to watch his humiliation and leaves the auditorium. Alexander is unable to prevent her from leaving or stop the circus clowns. The mockery seems particularly pointed since Alexander, like Petr, has not fulfilled the potential he once had, and the audience’s laughter underscores his insecurities and bitterness. Once the performers have finished with him, and before they release him from the ring, Alexander finds a bucket of water and dumps it over himself in a suddenly defiant acceptance of his fate: if he is to be a laughingstock, then so be it. This redeems Alexander and makes the scene light instead of tragic. Katya and Alexander reunite after the show.

Most of the film is not so light, however. In the final chapter of the film, Petr goes on a hunting trip with a group of men in the Siberian tundra. The scene starts out happily enough, with the men shouting and running through snowy birch trees. Soon, however, Petr begins to lag behind the others, collapsing against a tree in apparent physical pain. He rubs snow over his forehead, recalling a similar gesture made by one of his terminally ill patients earlier in the film. He begins to weep, but his crying is inaudible; a dissonant version of the film’s musical theme replaces diegetic sound. A wild dog stands close by; Petr calls it to him and pets it fondly. The dog reminds Petr of his successful experiments, and we cut to images of him and his scientific team celebrating their achievement and posing for photographs. The final image of the film is the haunting eyes of the terminally ill patient, upon whom Petr had hoped to operate. This scene may connect to the early scenes of Shepitko’s next film, The Ascent, which features a similarly austere landscape of snowy birches and flat plains, and a protagonist in physical pain.

Ty i Ya made it past censors, but authorities limited its release to the public because it was considered too complex and experimental. As actor Yuri Vizbor notes in his recollection of the film, “Our picture, if I am not mistaken, was the most poorly attended film in theaters in the year of its release. However, in the same year, the film was sent to the Venice International Film Festival, and won the Gold Lion prize.”

4. Vozhozhdenie (The Ascent), 1977

Shepitko described this film as “Dostoevsky meets the Great Patriotic War (as Russians call World War II),” and probably nothing more apt has ever been said about the film. She gave birth to her son, Anton, in 1971; the difficult birth resulted in a serious injury that hospitalized her for months and forced her to contemplate her own mortality in a more serious way than ever before. She took a six-year hiatus from filmmaking to care for her son before beginning work on The Ascent.

The film is a religious allegory. Early in the film, Nazi officers in Belarus capture two Soviet partisan soldiers, Rybak and Sotnikov. Rybak, a pragmatic and rough-mannered peasant, capitulates to the Nazis in order to save his own life. Sotnikov, a philosophizing intellectual, refuses to betray his country. The Nazis torture and finally execute him. Rybak’s willingness to turn traitor only leads him to misery, and his selfishness makes him the Judas to Sotnikov’s Christ.

Shepitko worked with cinematographer Vladimir Chukhnov to create a psychologically tense atmosphere through use of shifting focus, framing, and the careful staging of actors in nearly every frame. When Sotnikov and Rybak first arrive at an abandoned village before their capture, Rybak picks up a small hand mirror left behind. Rybak and the object come into focus very gradually and deliberately, paralleling his revelation of the gravity of his situation. In the scene where the Nazi collaborator Portnov interrogates Sotnikov, the camera, placed slightly below eye level and behind Sotnikov’s chair, appears mostly balanced, with all the most significant visual information located in the center of the scene. There are some asymmetrical elements - the heavy black furnace door in the lower right corner unbalanced by the wiring in the upper left corner of the frame, the painting on the right wall and the small table in the back of the room - that give the shot a subtle, disturbing imbalance. The staging of the actors within the scene is also highly symbolic. The placement of Portnov between Sotnikov and the brightness of the window, the dominance of his position over the prisoner, and the camera’s relative distance from the subjects (although Portnov looms over Sotnikov and is facing the camera, Sotnikov is physically closer to the camera, and the camera is “on his side,” so to speak) — all these elements establish not just a sense of place, but a stark, forbidding atmosphere and a complicated power dynamic.

Shepitko combines both unusual composition and focus in one of the weirdest shots of the film: as Sotnikov, captured, lies on a sled taking him to the nearest Nazi camp, the director gives a low-angle close-up of his face that takes up only the lower portion of the screen (offering an excellent view of his nostrils). The rest of his body is cut off below the upper lip, and the majority of the composition is dedicated to the vast, flat, bleak expanse of the Belorussian countryside. She stays with the shot for a time, studying the play of shadows over Sotnikov’s face and his enigmatic upward-facing gaze, before the camera pulls focus from the foreground to the sparse background. This unusual use of bottom-heavy composition is striking, and Shepitko uses it to her advantage again when Sotnikov and the other prisoners approach the gallows. In this sequence, she opens the shot full of blank sky, and Sotnikov enters from the bottom of the screen, walking uphill and followed by other figures, as though ascending to heaven.

The Ascent passed by censors relatively untouched but received extremely limited distribution in the USSR. Party censors accused Shepitko of mysticism for the dark, heavy-handed religious themes contained in the film. It did manage to garner a great amount of international critical acclaim. The film might seem propagandistic, as it condemns traitors but martyrs those who remained true to the Soviet cause. Yet of all her films, I feel that this one actually may contain Shepitko’s sharpest critique of contemporary Soviet society. Under the tenets of Socialist Realism, all forms of culture were expected to glorify the proletariat, and all protagonists were meant to be exemplary Soviet citizens. Peasants, factory workers, and common comrades were the typical heroes of films under Stalin. Socialist Realism ceased to be the dominant mode of creative expression after Stalin’s death, and the Thaw permitted greater freedom and creativity; yet by 1977 the Thaw had long been over, replaced with the economic, political, and cultural stagnation of the Brezhnev period. For Shepitko to negatively depict a character emblematic of the peasantry is subversive for an era marked by a return to conservatism. In what constitutes an even sharper criticism of contemporary Soviet society, Rybak’s survival implies that the best of his generation perished in the War and that the Rybaks of the nation run the USSR of Shepitko’s time.

The Ascent was Shepitko’s final film. She died in a car crash while scouting locations for what was to be her next film, Farewell to Matyora. Her husband, Elem Klimov, finished the film for her in 1984 under the abbreviated title Farewell. He also directed a short film in tribute to his wife, called Larisa (1980). (I bawled like a baby watching it. It’s available without subtitles on YouTube, for those curious.) Her only son is now a journalist and writer in Russia.

She maintained her creative power and vision throughout her career, producing complex, dark, innovative work in the face of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of state censorship and an unwelcoming, male-dominated film studio system. She valued cinema above almost everything else - a legend says that she agreed to marry Elem Klimov only after he promised not to try to influence her work. She was also in some ways very modest and unpretentious; in interviews, she talks about filmmaking in a truly genuine way. But there is also a proud streak in her, most visible in her rejection of women’s cinema. Shepitko’s films leave an indelible influence on anyone lucky enough to stumble upon them, an influence resulting not only from their original cinematic style but also from the personal virtues of the woman who made them.


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