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Larisa Shepitko: Ukrainian anti-war filmmaker who dug deep into human psyche

As war rages on in Ukraine, the distinct cultural identity of the nation has come under increased interest. One of Ukraine’s major cultural impacts that is often overlooked is in the realm of cinema. From early pioneers like Alexander Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, and Maya Deren to more contemporary directors such as Kira Muratova, Ukraine has produced some of the most unique and creative filmmakers in the world. Among these filmmakers is a woman named Larisa Shepitko – a filmmaker whose career of intense psychological portraits was tragically cut short by a car accident at the age of 40. Shepitko’s final film, The Ascent, showcases the horrors of war in a way no film had done before – and, due to the current wartime brutality in her homeland, is a vital piece of cinema to view. 

Born in 1938 in Armtervosk, eastern Ukraine, Shepitko immediately felt the effects of war. Her father got a divorce and went to serve as an officer in World War II, which left a lasting impact. 

Enrolling in Moscow’s VGIK film school in 1954, Shepitko was advised to work in acting, rather than directing, because filmmaking was considered a male profession. Undeterred, Shepitko was mentored by Soviet montage pioneer and fellow Ukrainian, Alexander Dovzhenko, who appreciated her tenacity. 

Shepitko’s determination was made apparent with her first feature, Heat (1962). Filmed on the hot Kyrgyzstan steppe, temperatures got so high that the film stock melted in the camera. Furthermore, Shepitko came down with jaundice, but insisted she keep working. At some points during production, she had to be carried around on a stretcher. Elem Klimov, a student at VGIK, edited Heat and quickly bonded with Shepitko. The couple were married the following year. 

Shepitko’s first film to deal with the psychological effects of war was 1966’s Wings. The film focuses on a former World War II pilot, Nadezhda Petrukhina, who is struggling to adapt to post-war life. While respected as a war hero, Nadezhda struggles to form any meaningful personal connections. Klimov explains, “Wings is a film about people scorched by the war, about the never-to-be healed wounds of memory, about the insufferableness of wingless existence.” 

In 1971, Shepitko released You and Me, the story of a doctor who feels he has lost his once-lofty ambitions and goes on an existential journey from Stockholm to Moscow and eventually to Siberia in order to find himself. 

Two years later, beset by physical and psychological struggles and constant battles with Soviet censors, Shepitko suffered a mental breakdown. While recuperating in a sanitorium, Shepitko suffered a fall that left her with a spinal cord injury and concussion. This occured around the same time as her pregnancy, and these injuries meant she only barely survived childbirth. Shepitko said later: “I was facing death for the first time, and like anyone in such a situation, I was looking for my own formula of immortality.” 

With her own mortality front-and-center, Shepitko picked up the camera again to make what would be her final film; The Ascent. Despite resistance from Soviet authorities and censors, Shepitko was eventually given the go-ahead.

The Ascent was filmed under demanding conditions in the icy January Russian tundra. Shepitko recalled “We worked a long time and in very tough conditions, in severe frost. We deliberately tried to approximate these conditions to the ones which our characters had to endure.” Cast and crew praised Shepitko’s leadership. 

Shepitko’s dedication paid off. What resulted was a harrowing depiction of wartime desperation and tragedy, set in Nazi-occupied Belarus. Heightened by Alfred Schnittke’s funereal score, the film taps into a spiritual, transcendental level about mortality and the nature of evil. The characters of the film trudge through frames dominated by the empty white snow, accentuating their isolation and helplessness. This depiction of war has no glorious heroism or exciting action that pulses through most war movies; simply humans whose lives teeter perilously in the balance. The haunting conclusion to the film caps off a journey not just through Belarus, but also deep into the human psyche. 

The Ascent’s most important test came at the screening for party officials who would decide what parts would be dropped for censorship. The initial screening left the officials in a “stunned silence”, as Klimov described it. Pyetr Masherov, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Belarus, broke the silence by getting up, wiping away tears, and explaining the importance of the film. Masherov himself was a veteran of the war and was intensely affected by what he had just seen. The film would be released without any cuts.

The Ascent received the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Shepitko had finally garnered attention from the global filmmaking community. According to Shepitko’s son Anton, Francis Ford Coppola invited Shepitko to an early screening of his anti-war psychological drama Apocalypse Now to get her thoughts on it. 

Tragically, Shepitko’s well-earned time in the spotlight was cut short. While scouting locations for her following project, Farewell, in 1980, she was killed along with several other crew members in a car accident. Shepitko’s husband Elem Klimov pieced together a 20-minute short documentary on her life and achievements, titled Larisa. Klimov would complete Farewell and proceed to direct one final film – Come and See, a terrifying look at a young Belarussian boy’s life torn apart by wartime atrocities, and clearly inspired by his wife’s own work. 

Larisa Shepitko’s regrettably short career was plagued with illness, injury, misfortune, and mental strain, and nonetheless she still produced some of the world’s most powerful, thoughtful pieces of cinema. Shepitko’s mentor Dovzhenko had a motto: “You have to approach each film as if it were your last.”. Shepitko lived this belief every moment of her life.