The Ascension of Larisa Shepitko

The life and work of one of Soviet cinema’s true humanists.

Photo via ITAR-TASS

Larisa Shepitko is perhaps among the lesser-known Soviet filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, but without doubt, one of the brightest and most talented. A former student of Soviet cinema visionary Alexander Dovzhenko, Shepitko left a small but exceptional body of work. Touching upon existential themes, both personal and universal, Shepitko's cinema was often a target of censorship even in the post-Stalinist era. Always a humanist and later a mystic, Shepitko employed artistic forms of expression and complex characters that bewildered the authorities. 

Shepitko’s first feature film post-graduation was “Wings” (1966), the story of Nadezhda, a distinguished fighter pilot, now a chairwoman and school principal in a provincial town. Despite receiving recognition and respect for her wartime experience, Nadezhda is alienated and unable to communicate with her students or even her adult daughter during peacetime. She comes fully alive only in her memories of flying. Masterful cinematography, a realistic narrative and an exceptional performance by the lead actress Maya Bulgakova deliver a unique and upsetting viewing experience.

After an unreleased short film and brief work in television, Shepitko made her only color feature film “You and I” (1971), an existential tale of disillusionment with consumerism, set in the contemporary USSR. The film follows Pyotr, a former neurosurgeon, who realizes he has compromised his ideals in favor of a stable job and sets out on a journey to find himself. Through an experimental, non-linear narrative, Shepitko tells a deeply personal story of the Soviet intelligentsia of the time. 

“Larisa” by Elem Klimov, 1980.

Severe censorship exacerbated Shepitko’s declining mental and physical health after the exhausting shoot and forced her to meditate on her following work. Her uncompromising, humanistic worldview and relentless desire to remain true to her art can be seen in her final and most famous film: “The Ascent” (1976), an allegorical tale of spirituality and survival. Set during World War II, in the winter of 1942, the film features two partisans eventually captured by the Nazis. 

The filmmaker studies the characters as they face imminent death. Pitting survival instinct against faith in something greater, “The Ascent” is a grim tale filled with biblical motifs. Striking lighting fills every shot with tension, and Alfred Schnittke's penetrating score emphasizes the central characters’ inner struggles. Although Christian themes were unacceptable in war films in which patriotism and heroism prevail, Shepitko wanted to convey the moral and ethical qualities she considered universal and essential for a human being. The film won Shepitko the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear in 1977.

Having received international recognition, she began planning her next movie – the story of Matyora, an island community threatened with flooding following the construction of a dam. 

On June 2, 1979, Larisa Shepitko, aged 41, died in a car crash along with crew members during location scouting. Work on the movie was continued by her husband – the director Elem Klimov – and later released as “Farewell” in 1983. Klimov is also responsible for the touching documentary short entitled “Larisa,” which features the last shot ever made by Larisa Shepitko.