Soviet films take wing again

Special to The Times

The UKRAINIAN filmmaker Larisa Shepitko was only 41 and at the height of her career when she died in a car crash in 1979. She had completed four features and was on her way to becoming a major figure of postwar Soviet cinema.

But her early death -- and the tumultuous, censorious conditions under which she and her peers worked -- have contributed to the relative neglect of her films in the years since. The new release from Eclipse, the midprice line from the Criterion Collection devoted to overshadowed careers, is a welcome corrective: a two-disc set containing Shepitko’s two most acclaimed films, “Wings” and “The Ascent.”

Shepitko and her filmmaker husband, Elem Klimov, were the glamorous first couple of the Soviet New Wave, which launched the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky to international prominence.

Cinematic revolts were sweeping the globe in the ‘60s, and in the Soviet Union this period of creative ferment was enabled by a larger political and cultural shift known as the Thaw, a reversal, under then-Premier Nikita Khrushchev, of several hard-line Stalinist policies. (The Thaw was temporary: Khrushchev’s own mandates were reversed after he was removed from office in 1964.)


Like many Soviet New Wave filmmakers, Shepitko studied at the State Film Institute in Moscow, where she met Klimov and where she was tutored by Aleksandr Dovzhenko, a great cinematic poet of the silent era. Her graduation film, “Heat” (1964), is about the faceoff between an idealistic youth and the leader of a collective farm -- the kind of philosophical conflict that would recur throughout her small but striking body of work. It was filmed under harsh conditions in the steppes, and Shepitko had to enlist Klimov, a fellow student, to help with its completion. (They married not long after.)

“Wings” (1966), Shepitko’s first post-graduation work, is something of an anomaly in her filmography, with its focus on a female protagonist. A celebrated fighter pilot in her youth, Nadezhda Petrovna (the wonderful Maya Bulgakova) leads a life that is in every sense earthbound. The film subtly conveys the quiet disappointment and deep loneliness of this once vibrant woman, now a middle-aged school principal in a provincial town.

Shepitko’s next film, “You and I” (1971), in which a successful doctor opts to work at a clinic in Siberia, likewise dwells on a central character questioning the values of Soviet society. With “The Ascent” (1976), her crowning achievement, she shifts her focus to a painful period of Soviet history: the German occupation of what is now Belarus during World War II.

Two Communist partisans, separated from their platoon, must fend for themselves in the icy wilderness. When they are captured, one holds up under interrogation and torture; the other stops at nothing to save himself. The film is a spiritual parable, with explicit parallels to Christ and Judas, but its intensity derives largely from its harrowing physicality. “The Ascent” won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and was the last film Shepitko completed.


The fatal crash happened while she was in preproduction for her fifth feature (it also killed several members of her crew, including Vladimir Chukhnov, the brilliant cinematographer of “The Ascent”). Klimov (who died in 2003) finished the film she was planning, “Farewell to Matyora” (1983), and also directed a tribute to her, “Larisa” (1980). His final and greatest film, “Come and See” (1985, available on DVD from Kino), is a brutally intense World War II film (you can see its influence on “Saving Private Ryan”), plainly indebted to his wife’s own masterpiece, “The Ascent.”