January 2013, arsenal cinema

The Films of Larisa Shepitko

KRYLJA, 1966

Larisa Shepitko is one of the great forgotten figures of Soviet cinema in the 1960s and '70s. Born in the Ukraine in 1938, she moved to Moscow as a young woman to attend the All-Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK). There she studied directing under Alexander Dovzhenko, whose visionary film language and attitude toward life and art had a profound influence on her. The guiding principles of her work were her unconditional dedication to truthfulness and uncompromising advocacy of art. Existential questions and the actions of people torn between their own desires and superordinate values lie at the core of her films. In the process, she created a visual language that was able to evoke interior worlds through forceful images. Shepitko was among the key directors of the post-Stalinist Thaw-era in Soviet cinema, when state-mandated Formalism gave way to individual modes of expression. The comparative cultural and political freedom of the Khrushchev Era ended, however, in 1967-68. By that time, Shepitko had written and directed two films, her student film ZNOJ (1963) and KRYLYA (1966), as well as a segment of an omnibus project commissioned in 1967 for the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. The latter was completed but denied release, and was first shown only twenty years later, well after her death. Her international breakthrough came in 1977, when her fourth film VOSKHOZHDENIYE ("The Ascent") was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Shepitko is frequently referred to as the "unfinished one" – she died in 1979 at the age of forty in an automobile accident, together with four other members of her crew. Her husband, director Elem Klimov, finally completed FAREWELL TO MATYORA in 1983.

KRYLJA (Wings, USSR 1966, 19.1., Introduction: Barbara Wurm & 25.1.) Forty-two-year-old Nadezhda had been a famous fighter pilot during the war and now works as a school principal. She is honoured and respected in society; her portrait even hangs in the local museum as a shimmering example of a war hero. And yet she is continually coming into conflict with the younger generation. Her straightforward and authoritarian style strikes her pupils as unnecessarily harsh and cold, and her relationship with her adult daughter is also strained. In order to meet her son-in-law, she has to invite herself over and tries to hide the embarrassment of the situation behind a show of cheerfulness. Her daughter advises her to think of herself, for once, instead of viewing life as a series of obligations to be fulfilled.  But it is hard for Nadezhda to let go of that sense of obligation. She flees the banality of her daily routine by retreating into memories of a glorious past. The actress Maya Bulgakova plays Nadezhda with a mixture of strength and vulnerability; a woman who has a place in society but is inwardly lost.

ZNOJ (Heat, USSR 1963, 24. & 30.1.) was made under extremely difficult climatic conditions on the Kyrgyz steppe. Based on Chinghiz Aitmatov's novel "The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years", it relates the sobering experiences of a young man against the background of the construction of a new social order. After finishing school, 17-year-old Kemel arrives in the steppes of Kones-Anrachai in order to assist a brigade in bringing new land into agricultural production.  His idealism and unconditional belief that the plan is viable collide with the worldly-wise attitude of the tractor driver Abakir, who sees the arrival of the younger man as a threat to his seniority. It is at once a poetic "Eastern" that borrows from Dovzhenko and a satire on Khrushchev’s failed Virgin Lands Campaign of the 1950s. In conjunction with this, we will be screening the short film LARISA (USSR 1980), Elem Klimov's elegiac tribute to Larisa Shepitko.

NACHALO NEVEDOMOGO VEKA (The Beginning of an Unknown Era, Larisa Shepitko, Andrej Smirnov, USSR 1967, 22.01 & 28.01). A two-part omnibus film commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. Shelved immediately upon its completion, it was not allowed to be shown until 1987. Brezhnev’s censors found its presentation of the beginning of a new era to be insufficiently optimistic. Andrej Smirnov's episode ANGEL follows a group of people whose train has derailed and is captured by bandits. Larisa Shepitko's episode RODINA ELEKTRISHESTVA (The Homeland of Electricity) follows a young mechanic who is sent to a remote village in the 1920s in order to bring electricity to the people. The key scene consists of a dialogue between him and an older woman, who is praying for rain during a religious procession: "Nature heeds neither words nor prayers; it fears only reason and work." Shot with a special anamorphic lens, the images are ever so slightly distorted and resemble the elongated faces of icons.

TY I YA (You and I, UdSSR 1971, 20.01 & 31.01) Shepitko's only color film tells of the existential questions of two doctors in an elliptical and non-chronologically structured manner. Bored with his comfortable life as a researcher and pitched into a crisis by the breakdown of his marriage, Pyotr tries to overcome his individual failure by accepting a demanding job in Siberia. It is a critical appraisal of Shepitko's own generation of intelligentsia. "The film is really about us. That's why it's called YOU AND I. […] By the age of thirty, one has achieved clarity about many things that have happened or are happening to one. Three years earlier I wouldn't have been able to make such a film. And in a few years, I'll probably have a different view of this period." (Larisa Sheptiko)

VOSKHOZHDENIYE (The Ascent, USSR 1976, 23.01 & 26.01) In Shepitko's final film, set in the winter of 1942, two partisans are captured by the Nazis while foraging for food. Condemned to death, one of the two evades the sentence by collaborating with the Germans.  Focussing on critical moments in the plot, Shepitko teases out the contrast between the different ways in which the two protagonists, Rybak and Sotnikov, react in the face of certain death. Through the use of Biblical motifs, the clash over treason, fear, and inner strength draws direct parallels to the Passion of Christ. "I found the thought to be of the utmost importance that the Soviet people triumphed not only by means of weapons but also by means of their mental strength, their morals and ethics. Following the flow of the story, we searched for the sources of these qualities in order to show the magnitude of their heroism." (Larisa Shepitko)

PROSHCHANIE (Farewell to Matyora, Elem Klimov, USSR 1979/83, 29.01) The tiny village of Matyora, which is located on an island in the middle of a Siberian river, is supposed to be burned to the ground and flooded in the interest of hydroelectric production. While the elderly residents struggle desperately against the destruction of their long-standing traditions, the young people are open to and even welcome progress and the changes that it brings. The symbolic destruction of the village oak is repeatedly thwarted: Neither human beings nor tractors nor fire can fell this deeply rooted tree. Set within the field of tension between tradition and progress, the film is a plea for humaneness and universal values.

In Cooperation with the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen.