How Larisa Shepitko’s pursuit of truth produced a searing legacy of anti-war films

How Larisa Shepitko’s pursuit of truth produced a searing legacy of anti-war films
Larisa Shepitko on the set of Wings (1966).

The Calvert Journal look at the work of film director Larisa Shepitko, whose seminal work, The Ascent was released on 2 April, 1977. Born in Soviet Ukraine, Shepitko battled censorship and fiercely championed pacifism in Soviet cinema.

2 April 2021

In 1979, Larisa Shepitko was at the height of her powers. Young, glamorous, and prodigiously talented, the Soviet filmmaker was riding a wave of success in the aftermath of her rapturously acclaimed fourth feature, The Ascent, and stood on the brink of international breakthrough. Then, a car crash just outside of St Petersburg cut that promise short. Shepitko was dead at the age of forty, leaving behind only a handful of films. Within a decade, she had been largely forgotten.

Shepitko’s short life was shaped by death. Plagued by illness, accidents and close calls, her furious creativity was powered by the inescapable spectre of mortality. Part of a new movement of filmmakers, alongside Andrei Tarkovsky and her husband Elem Klimov, who sought modes of expression beyond montage and socialist realism, Shepitko believed the role of film was to tell the truth. “If we think we can be cunning for just five seconds and make up for it later… it brings punishment,” she declared. “If you stumble once, you’ll never get back on the path of truth. You will forget your way there.”

Shepitko’s refusal to compromise led to the suppression of her films — something that was to have consequences long after her death. Yet ultimately, her instinctive truth-telling paid off. Shepitko’s slim body of work remains some of the most compelling cinema of its era.

Beginnings

Larisa Shepitko was born 1938 in Armtervosk, eastern Ukraine. Her father, an army officer, abandoned the family when Shepitko was young, leaving her schoolteacher mother to raise three children alone. Her earliest memories were shaped by the Second World War and its aftermath, an experience she would continually return to in her art.

At the age 16, Shepitko enrolled in the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), where she received mentorship from the great filmmaker (and fellow Ukrainian) Alexander Dovzhenko, and met her future husband, Klimov. By 1964, Shepitko had already completed two shorts, The Blind Cook (1961) and Living Water (1962), and a feature film Heat (1963).

A still from The Ascent(1977)

Work

From the beginning, Shepitko’s work was defined by its uncompromising quality, a core of steel evident on and off-screen. Shepitko was still a 22-year-old student, when she made Heat (1963), a drama centred on the struggle for survival on a state-run farm in Kyrgyzstan. Sparse, naturalistic and poetic, Heat centres on the face-off between an idealistic youth and a Stalinist farmer, set against the backdrop of the arid landscape. Shepitko drove her crew mercilessly, battling with heat so intense that the film stock melted in the camera, and refusing to shutdown filming even when struck down with hepatitis and forced to direct from a stretcher.

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Yet, somehow, the director succeeded. The release of Heat caused a sensation, announcing Shepitko as a bold new talent. She went on to follow this early triumph with her first masterpiece, Wings (1966): the story a female fighter pilot turned school principal who struggles to readjust to life in peacetime. Maya Bulgakova, who plays the central character of Nadezhda, gives a devastating performance as a middle-aged woman unable to relate to her students, friends, or even her own daughter, trapped by the limited expectations of her new life. Throughout Wings, we see her gaze repeatedly, longingly, upwards, at the sky. As the film progresses, these cloud-bound dreams become more intrusive until, unable to resist any longer, Nadezhda gives in to her desires, stealing a plane to make one last journey back into the skies.

Wings was the subject of much debate upon its release, attracting controversy for its ambivalent portrayal of a war hero and suggestion of an unbridgeable generational divide. Shepitko’s films often offer such critiques, digging into the hypocrisies of post-war life without offering solutions. In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union had enjoyed a brief period of post-Stalin liberalisation, and it was during Khrushchev’s cultural “thaw” that Shepitko’s generation had found their voices. By the mid-1960s however, this chapter was drawing to a close, and it was inevitable in the midst of resurgent conservatism that Shepitko’s work would catch the attention of authorities. Her next short, Beginning of an Unknown Era (1967) was censored for its unsympathetic portrayal of the Bolsheviks, and left unscreened for twenty years.

The response to Beginning was a blow to Shepitko, whose health was already beginning to suffer from the strain of her work. Nonetheless, she fought on. Her next film, You and I (1972), picked up on the inflammatory trail of Wings, offering a parallel narrative centred on a doctor whose existential crisis sends him not to the clouds, but to Siberia, in search of meaning. Shepitko’s relentless honesty was informed by the lessons she had learnt from her film school mentor Dovzhenko, who had taught her his motto: “approach every film as if it were your last.”

By the mid-1970s, Shepitko’s mind was firmly on mortality. Hospitalised in a sanatorium after a breakdown, Shepitko suffered a fall that damaged her spine. When she became pregnant with her son, the strain nearly killed her. “I was facing death for the first time,” she later said, “and like anyone in such a situation, I was looking for my own formula of immortality.”

She found that recipe in her final film. Set in 1942, The Ascent (1977) follows two partisan soldiers through the frozen Belarusian countryside as they attempt to evade their Nazi occupiers. Once again, Shepitko’s merciless integrity extended to her shoot. During production, she refused to wear more clothes than her actors, who were dressed in authentic period clothing, risking hypothermia and frostbite alongside them in temperatures that sometimes dipped to -40 degrees Celsius. Shepitko was often so exhausted by the end of the day that she had to be carried back to her hotel. Miraculously, her sacrifice paid off: unrelenting, visually dazzling and startling modern, The Ascent is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.

A still from Wings(1966)

Style and themes

Almost all of Shepitko’s films are shot in black and white, a stark monochrome which adds bleak beauty to bare-bones storytelling. Dialogue is usually sparing, with emphasis placed instead on body language and facial expressions. The camera frequently focuses on arms, legs, feet and faces shot in isolation, sometimes at disorientating angles, slicing actors into segments of pure gesture.

These moments of up-close human drama contrast with the scale of Shepitko’s landscapes, vast empty canvases which draw out her central themes. Like fellow VGIK graduate Marta Mészáros, another filmmaker who lost a father at a young age, Shepitko’s films are studies in isolation, exile and abandonment. Her characters are often depicted as tiny specks dwarfed by their surroundings: soldiers lost in an icy wilderness, farmers on a barren steppe, a pilot alone in an empty sky.

Shepitko is a political filmmaker, but one rooted firmly in humanism rather than ideology. Heroic myths are brutally stripped away, leaving instead unapologetically unpatriotic accounts of the toxic cost of war

Shepitko is a political filmmaker, but one rooted firmly in humanism rather than ideology. Both Wings and The Ascent are fiercely pacifist works which explore — albeit from different angles — the tragic consequences of conflict. Heroic myths are brutally stripped away, leaving instead unapologetically unpatriotic accounts of the toxic cost of war.

While Shepitko’s films are grounded in naturalistic performances and complex characterisation, this is counterbalanced by moments of intense, cinematic strangeness. In Wings, we periodically move away from the action to join Nadezhda as she gazes up into the clouds, dreaming of returning the last place where she felt alive. The Ascent takes this idea further, offering us moments of transcendence amongst the devastation of war.

A still from Wings(1966)

Up-Close: one perfect scene

In The Ascent, a young soldier, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) lies in the snow, bleeding from a leg wound. He is a partisan who has become separated from his troupe. Now, injured, under fire, and alone, Sotnikov is doomed.

As an enemy soldier advances, Sotnikov struggles with his ammunition, adjusts his rifle and unfastens his boot. Shepitko shoots this in a series of handheld close ups – a hand emptying a pocket, bullets dropping to the ground, frozen fingers fumbling with laces. They want to take him alive, and Sotnikov knows this must not happen. He rolls in the snow, face tight with concentration and moves onto his back, a position which will allow him to shoot himself. He moves his toes to the trigger, panting for breath. Then, suddenly, calm. A strange noise begins; the first music we’ve heard, an eerie shimmering drone. Sotnikov lies back, still, as the camera zooms in on his face. Is he catatonic? Freezing to death? We cut abruptly to a shot of the moon, huge and bright in a cloudy sky. A hallucination perhaps? The other worldly sound crescendos. Then, distant shouts and the sound of gunshots, as we are plunged back into the battle.

This moment lasts only seconds, but it’s our first indication that The Ascent is offering something new. Mysterious interludes such as this recur, and we begin to understand that Shepitko’s interests go beyond historical re-enactment or war movie tropes. An allegory, a fable, a cautionary tale? Whatever your interpretation, The Ascent is a puzzle, and that unexpected glimpse of moon is the invitation that draws you in, ready to untangle this queer and beautiful thing.

Legacy

The Ascent screened to great acclaim, winning the Golden Bear at the 1978 Berlinale. Poised on the cusp of international breakthrough and dealing with the unofficial suppression of her work at home, Shepitko began to consider a move to Hollywood, where studios had already begun approaching this rising star.

Nonetheless, Shepitko planned to make her next feature, Farewell, in Russia. She was scouting locations for that film, just outside of St Petersburg, when she was killed, alongside several crew members, in a car accident. The sudden loss left the film world numb. “Larisa Shepitko was buried,” Tarkovsky wrote in his diary. “A car accident. All killed instantly. It was so sudden that no adrenaline was found in their blood.”

A still from The Ascent(1977)

One way to trace Shepitko’s legacy is through the profound impact her death had on her husband. The tragedy changed Elem Klimov forever, shaping the direction of his future filmmaking. In the immediate aftermath, Klimov dedicated himself to preserving Shepitko’s legacy, making Larisa (1980) a moving tribute which features film clips, emotional interviews and recordings of Shepitko speaking her own words. He would also go on to complete Farewell himself using Shepitko’s script, releasing his own version in 1983. In 1985, eight years after The Ascent, Klimov was to secure his international reputation with the release of his own anti-war masterpiece, Come and See.

It is at least partly thanks to Klimov’s dedication that Shepitko is remembered at all. Certainly, she has never received the same level of attention as her peers: Tarkovsky, German, and Klimov are all better known. Shepitko’s gradual journey reflects that of other female directors of the period, such as Kira Muratova and Marta Mészáros, who despite longer lives and larger bodies of work have also had to wait decades to see their work recognised both within the Soviet Union and beyond.

Over the past decade or so, Shepitko’s films have slowly found a global audience. In 2008, Criterion released Wings and The Ascent, finally ensuring access to two masterpieces. Yet beyond these features, her other work is not easily accessible, she rarely receives more than a passing mention in film histories, and she is still often left off lists of great Soviet directors. She may be remembered but she is yet to be fully acknowledged.

The real impact of a filmmaker is not measured in words however, but in images. In Larisa, Klimov shows us the last shot Shepitko ever filmed. A tree stands before us, shrouded in mist, as the camera travels along its trunk and upwards, into branches that seem to stretch indefinitely into an endless sky. It is an image of continuation and renewal, an encapsulation of the endless cycle of life and death. Hopeful and devastating at the same time, just like Shepitko’s finest work; films that live on and still hold the power to captivate, decades after the women who made them left this world.

This article is part of our series Women, Recollected, an ongoing project shining a light on the forgotten women pioneers of 20th century culture.

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