The Guardian on Sheptiko from 2005...
The lady vanishes
Larisa Shepitko was glamorous and gifted, and in her heyday she had the movie world at her feet. Why has everyone forgotten her, asks Larushka Ivan-Zadeh
Monday January 10, 2005
On June 2 1979 one of cinema's greatest female directors was killed in a car crash outside Leningrad. She was 39. Her name was Larisa Shepitko, and, even if you're a film buff, the chances are you've never heard of her. Barely any of Shepitko's mesmerising films have been screened in Britain. None is available on DVD. In fact they're scarcely shown, or known, in Russia. Yet, at the time of her sudden death, Shepitko was hot property on the international film circuit: she was young for a film-maker; she was strikingly attractive; her exquisite masterpiece The Ascent had won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin festival. She had all the live-fast-die-young glamour that would ensure instant icon status for far inferior artists.
So why has Shepitko's work remain buried for so long? For the answer, look no further than Lenin's declaration that "film for us, is the most important art". Shepitko did not find it easy to satisfy communism's cultural commissars.
Born in Ukraine in 1938, Shepitko was one of three children raised by her schoolteacher mother. Her father, a Persian officer, had abandoned his family through early divorce - an act that Larisa never forgave. When she enrolled in the Moscow film academy in 1955, her dramatic eyes and dark, cheekboned elegance attracted much attention. However, her sole focus was film-making, and in 1958 she studied direction at the State Institute for Cinematography (VGIK), a few years behind Andrei Tarkovsky. Her tutor was Alexander Dovzhenko, a towering figure of early Soviet cinema and contemporary of Eisenstein. His poetical imagery and passionate celebration of Ukranian folk culture were a marked influence on the young Shepitko, who called him "my mentor" and took to heart his motto: "You have to approach each film as if it were your last."
Shepitko's graduation film, Heat (1963), was an extraordinary first undertaking. A daring fusion of political drama and Western-style showdown between an idealistic high-school youth and a Stalinist farm leader, it was shot on the barren steppes in such extreme climate conditions that Shepitko fell dangerously ill. Stretchered off set, she called in another young film-maker to help complete the project; this was her fellow VGIK student Elem Klimov, whose war film Come and See (1985) Stephen Spielberg would later cite as an influence on Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.
Elem (named from the first letters of Engels, Lenin, Marx) had previously proposed marriage to Shepitko, but, like all the others, been rejected. Now he was accepted - but only after he vowed he wouldn't try to influence Shepitko's work.
United by intelligence, introspection and a certain dash, the Klimovs, along with Tarkovsky, were at the forefront of the Russian "New Wave" that flourished under Khrushchev before the cultural clampdown of 1967-8. In 1966 Shepitko was able to create her controversial second feature, Wings, which drew a stellar performance from Maya Bulgakova as a once-famous Stalinist fighter pilot now a disenchanted provincial schoolteacher.
An ill-fated omnibus called Beginning of an Unknown Era was Shepitko's first real loss to censorship. Commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, its unsentimental depiction of the early days of communism was hardly the banner-waving Bolshevik propaganda the Party had hoped for - particularly Angel, the segment directed by Andrei Smirnov, where a worker menaced by an officer with a gun comments: "How simple it is to kill and to condemn in the name of the revolution." The film was not shown until 1987.
The banning of Beginning depressed Shepitko. However, her primary concern as an artist was not political protest, but the more intimate exploration of the individual in society, struggling with that eternal question: "Why do we live?"
You and Me (1971), set in contemporary Russia, is her most experimental feature, and her only one in Technicolor. This is an existentialist narrative about two male surgeons in crisis about their ideals, balancing individual despair with hope in a wider humanity and responsibility. "I always used to think it was all or nothing," Dr Pyotr says to a suicidal girl, "But there's always somebody who needs you."
Now 35, Larisa took time off from work to have a child. It was a life-changing moment. As she said in her final interview in June 1979, "I saw death very closely. I had a serious spine injury, and at the time I was expecting a child. I could have died, because I decided to keep the child. At that time I was facing death for the first time, and like anyone in such a situation I was looking for my own formula of immortality."
The result was her numinous masterpiece The Ascent (1976). Drawn from Vasily Bykov's novella Sotnikov, it's the tense tale of two starving partisans crawling across the hostile snows of Belarus during the 1942 Nazi occupation. The film is outstanding not just for its ravishing aestheticism, but its Dostoevksian soul-wrestling and gripping central performances. The final scenes, where the Christ-like hero Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) dies because of his own stubborn convictions, form one of the most hypnotically powerful moments of 1970s cinema.
Despite The Ascent's success - international as well as national, although the Soviet authorities banned export of other masterpieces such as Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev - Larisa was increasingly preoccupied by death. Highly superstitious, she had her fortune told in Bulgaria in 1978, after which she immediately took her friend to a nearby church and made her swear that, should anything happen to her or Elem, she must look after their young son, Anton. A few months later, she was killed.
It was so abrupt; the Soviet film community was stunned into numbness. Tarkovsky wrote in his diary: "Larisa Shepitko was buried, and so were five members of her team. A car accident. All killed instantly. It was so sudden that no adrenaline was found in their blood."
Shepitko had been on location for a new film, The Farewell. Just a week after the accident, her husband was on set to complete it. The film, in which a traditional Siberian peasant village is condemned in order to facilitate the march of progress, is another implicit critique of modern communism. Interesting though it is (it was allegedly a favourite of Gorbachev's), Klimov's Farewell lacks the perfect pitch of the best of Shepitko's work.
Today, 25 years after Shepitko's death, her films have finally reached Britain. Leeds International Film festival, working with Soviet Export Film, has organised a retrospective of her entire oeuvre, from her four finished features to her prize-winning shorts (plus The Farewell and a tribute from Elem Klimov). All, particularly the last features, deserve an audience not as dated curiosities from another era, but because Shepitko's mysticism is rooted in an ever-relevant sense of humanity. It's time this long-lost Soviet visionary was brought in from the cold.
· The Larisa Shepitko retrospective is at the ICA, London SW1 (020-7930 3647), until January 27, and at venues throughout Britain during January