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Shepitko, Larissa (1939–1979)

Shepitko, Larissa (1939–1979)

Soviet filmmaker. Name variations: Larisa Shepitko or Shepit'ko. Born in 1939 in Armtervosk, eastern Ukraine; died on July 2, 1979, in an automobile accident outside Moscow; educated at the VGIK state film school; married Elem Klimov (a film director); children: one son.

Selected films:

Znoi (Heat, 1963); Krylya (Wings, 1966); Ty i ya (You and I, 1971); Voskhozdenie (The Ascent, 1977).

Larissa Shepitko was an acclaimed Soviet film director whose career was cut short by an early death. Born in the eastern Ukraine in 1939, she enrolled in the VGIK state film school in Moscow at the age of 16. Although her beauty inspired suggestions that she try a career in front of the camera, she stayed true to her determination to direct, and studied with famous director Alexander Dovzhenko.

Shepitko's two student shorts, The Blind Cook (1961) and Living Water (1962), were well received, and her first feature, Znoi (Heat, 1963), was made when she was 22. The film portrayed the harsh conditions and struggles on a state-owned communal farm in what is now Kyrgyzstan in a style that was both lyrical and realistic, and earned her immediate respect as a director. Like all her films, it was gorgeously shot and included a striking musical score, testifying to Shepitko's interest in both music and painting. Znoi was produced on a treeless location in temperatures that reached 120 degrees, so hot the film stock melted in the camera. When Shepitko came down with jaundice during the shoot and was too weak to walk, she was so determined to continue working that she had herself carried on a stretcher to various scenes.

The forced retirement of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 interrupted the trend of greater freedom in the arts, and Shepitko's fearless commentary on modern Soviet society in her later films became suspect. Her 1966 film Krylya (Wings) received guarded praise from the Soviet press. The magazine Iskusstvo Kino (October 1966) dedicated 20 illustrated pages to the movie, finding in it "much of importance and (in the right sense of the word) edification." Krylya focused on the personal struggles of a woman who had been a celebrated fighter pilot during World War II as she adjusts to the more traditional role again expected of a woman in postwar Soviet society. The film earned Shepitko notice as "one of the important filmmakers of the Soviet new wave," and while some Soviet critics worried that it was a critique of wartime heroism, some American critics saw in it an implied condemnation of a society that expected a heroic combat veteran to return to the restricted life traditionally deemed best for women.

Shepitko next began work on Radina electichestva (The Homeland of Electricity), a film about poverty during the era of the Russian Civil War, but authorities put an end to the production in 1968. (Later completed, it would be released in 1987 as one of two short films collectively titled The Beginning of an Unknown Century.) In 1971, she completed Ty i ya (You and I), the story of a middle-aged doctor undergoing a personal crisis and her first film shot in color. The film's structure required viewers to reconstruct chronology and various story lines, and reminded some critics of films by French New Wave directors. (Shepitko's work earned her frequent comparisons to that of Alain Resnais as well as the early films of Leni Riefenstahl .) Again, Communist authorities disapproved of her brazen exposing of contemporary society's ills, particularly in her depiction of the alienation of the Russian intelligentsia. They also found fault in her unconventional narrative techniques.

In 1977, Shepitko released what would prove to be her last film, Voskhozdenie (The Ascent), which follows a small group of soldiers struggling to survive in German-occupied Byelorussia in 1942. Shepitko was hailed for her "masculine" ability to depict the gritty horrors of war, and the film—stunningly shot in black and white—won a Golden Bear at that year's Berlin Film Festival. Although her films were unofficially suppressed in the Soviet Union, Shepitko received international attention. Considered a "breakthrough" director, she was offered the opportunity to direct in Hollywood, which she postponed until she could improve her English. She never got the chance, however, for in 1979, while scouting locations for her next film, Farewell, Shepitko was killed along with four members of her crew in an auto accident near Moscow. The film was made after her death by her husband Elem Klimov, who in 1981 also released the short photomontage Larissa.

sources:

Attwood, Lynne, ed. Red Women of the Silver Screen. London: Pandora, 1993.

Foster, Gwendolyn A., ed. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-critical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 3rd ed. NY: HarperCollins, 1998.

Wakeman, John, ed. World Film Directors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1988.

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City

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