Larisa Shepitko

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Larysa Shepitko
Larisa Shepitko.png
Born(1938-01-06)6 January 1938
Died2 July 1979(1979-07-02) (aged 41)
Kalinin Oblast, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
(present-day Kalinin Oblast, Russia)
Resting placeKuntsevo Cemetery, Moscow
Occupation(s)Film director, screenwriter, actress
Years active1956–1979
Notable workWings (1966), The Ascent (1977)
(m. 1963)

Larisa Yefimovna Shepitko (Russian: Лари́са Ефи́мовна Шепи́тько, Ukrainian: Лариса Юхимівна Шепітько, romanizedLarysa Yukhymivna Shepitko; 6 January 1938 – 2 July 1979) [1] was a Soviet film director, screenwriter and actress.[2] She is considered one of the best female directors of all time,[3] with her film The Ascent being the second film directed by a woman to win a Golden Bear[4][5] and the third film directed by a woman to win a top award at a major European film festival (Cannes, Venice, Berlin).

Shepitko was also considered one of the most prominent Soviet filmmakers during both the Khrushchev Thaw and the Era of Stagnation. The Khrushchev Thaw was a direct response to the limitations that were forced upon Soviet citizens during Stalin’s reign, and essentially marked the inception of an innovative return to the cinematic arts.[6][7] Shepitko's career was cut short in 1979 when she was killed in a car accident while scouting locations for the film Farewell. Her husband Elem Klimov created a 20-minute tribute documentary called Larisa to honor her legacy.

Early life and education[edit]

Shepitko was born in Artemovsk, a town in Eastern Ukraine now known as Bakhmut. One of three children, she was raised by her mother, a schoolteacher. Her father, a military officer, divorced Shepitko's mother and abandoned his family when Larisa was very young. She recalled, "My father fought all through the war. To me, the war was one of the most powerful early impressions. I remember the feeling of life upset, the family separated. I remember hunger and how our mother and us, the three children, were evacuated. The impression of a global calamity certainly left an indelible mark in my child's mind."[8] Because of this, her work often deals with loneliness and isolation.

In 1954, she graduated high school in Lviv. Shepitko moved to Moscow when she was sixteen, entering the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography as a student of Alexander Dovzhenko. She was a student of Dovzhenko's for 18 months until he died in 1956. She felt a kinship between their shared heritage and social realist imagery. She also adopted his motto, "Make every film as if it's your last."

Shepitko was the only female filmmaker studying at VGIK at the time. In her application interview, board members tried to convince her to take up acting, rather than directing, citing her photogenic looks. Shepitko refused and continued to pursue directing. Despite working in a very male dominated environment with a historical legacy of primarily male-made films to learn from, she would later state that, "I never tried to take male directors as a model, because I know only too well that any attempt by my female friends, my colleagues—both junior and senior—to imitate male filmmakers makes no sense because it’s all derivative."[9]



Shepitko graduated from VGIK in 1963 with her prize winning diploma film Heat, or Znoy, made when she was 22 years old. In the film, Kemel, a recent school graduate, travels into an isolated part of the steppes to work in a small communal farm camp in Central Asia during the mid-1950s. The film was influenced by a short story, "The Camel's Eye", by Chingiz Aitmatov. Her film showed Dovzhenko's impression, both in its parched setting and its naturalistic style. During the editing phase of the film, Shepitko was helped by Elem Klimov who also was a student at VGIK at that time. The two would later marry and have a child. During the filming of Heat, Shepitko contracted Hepatitis A and oftentimes she would direct portions of the film from a stretcher. Temperatures on locations could reach upwards of 50 degrees Celsius which caused the film to melt inside of the camera numerous times.[10] Heat won the Symposium Grand Prix ex aequo at the Karlovy Vary IFF in 1964[11] and an award at the All-Union Film Festival in Leningrad.[12]

Shepitko's first post-institute film Wings concerns a much-decorated female fighter pilot of World War II. The pilot, now principal of a vocational college, is out of touch with her daughter and the new generation. She has so internalized the military ideas of service and obedience that she cannot adjust to life during peacetime. Shepitko brings to light the inner life of a middle-aged woman who must reconcile her past with her present reality. She expresses this by contrasting her character's repression, marked by claustrophobic interiors and tight compositions, with heavenly, expansive shots of sky and clouds, representing the freedom of her flying days. Actress Maya Bulgakova inhabits this stern but reasonable woman with empathy and humor. The film aroused considerable Soviet press controversy at the time, as films were not meant to depict conflicts between children and parents (Vronskaya 1972, p. 39). It started a public debate by acknowledging a generation gap and for painting a war hero as a forgotten, lost soul.

In 1967, she shot the second of the three episodes in a portmanteau film titled Beginning of an Unknown Era, made to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. Shepitko's episode, The Homeland of Electricity, follows a young engineer who brings electric power to an impoverished village. The film as a whole was judged by the authorities to show the Bolsheviks in an unflattering light, and was left unreleased. Two of the episodes, including The Homeland of Electricity, were found and shown publicly for the first time in 1987, but the film in its complete original form is believed lost.[13]

In 1969, she shot her first color film, a musical-fantasy film titled In the 13th Hour of the Night, a New Year's revue starring Vladimir Basov, Georgy Vitsin, Zinovy Gerdt, Spartak Mishulin and Anatoly Papanov.

Shepitko's third film, You and Me, follows the lives of two male surgeons struggling with different notions of fulfillment. It is both a character study and a critique of consumerism. This was her second and last film in color. It was favorably received at the Venice Film Festival.

In 1977 Shepitko released The Ascent, her last completed film and the one which received the most attention in the West. The actors Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin gained their first major roles in the film. Adapted from a novel by Vasili Bykov, Shepitko returns to the sufferings of World War II, chronicling the trials and tribulations of a group of pro-Soviet partisans in Belarus in the bleak winter of 1942. Two of the partisans, Sotnikov and Rybak, are captured by the Wehrmacht and then interrogated by a local collaborator, played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, before four of them are executed in public. This depiction of the martyrdom of the Soviets owes much to Christian iconography. The Ascent won the Golden Bear at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival in 1977.[14] It was also the official submission of the Soviet Union for the Best Foreign Language Film of the 50th Academy Awards in 1978, and it was included in "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" by Steven Schneider.

Shepitko wanted the film to adhere to the authenticity of what Soviet soldiers would have experienced during World War II. The cast was derived of no-name actors whose backgrounds fit the characters she wanted them to portray. The film was shot in Murom during the severe winters of Russia where temperatures reached 40 degrees below zero. Shepitko refused any special treatment and only wore clothing that the cast wore to embody the suffering that they went through.[15]

Shepitko's growing international reputation led to an invitation to serve on the jury at the 28th Berlin International Film Festival in 1978.[16] Shepitko was offered a chance to direct in Hollywood, which she put off until she could improve her English.[17] Shepitko's son Anton Klimov claims that Francis Ford Coppola screened his 1979 film Apocalypse Now to Shepitko before its release to get her thoughts on it.[18]


Being a filmmaker during the Soviet regime was a difficult task. Many times the communist government would censor films that they did not approve of. This was the case for three of Shepitko's early films: Wings, The Homeland of Electricity, and You and Me. Wings was released to a limited audience and then later banned, The Homeland of Electricity was never shown in theaters, and You and Me was dropped and replaced from release in the Venice Film Festival by the Soviet government. She began working on the production of the film Belorussian Station in 1971 and planned to change the optimistic tone of the original tale to a more tragic one. As news got out of these plans, Mosfilm removed her from production and replaced her with a "less controversial director", Andrei Smirnov.[19]

Censorship during this time didn't have a clear format to follow. Films were approved solely on which government official saw the film first. Elim Klimov explained that The Ascent, Shepitko's most popular film, was only released in theaters because during its screening Pyetr Masherov, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Belorussia, "wiped away his tears and broke the crowd's stunned silence by speaking for forty minutes on the importance of the film".[20] Masherov himself was a war veteran of the Belorussian partisan movement and related closely to what the film depicted. Within several days of the screening, The Ascent was officially accepted without any changes.


Before Shepitko directed feature-lengths, she acted in three films during her time at VGIK. She was an extra in Eldar Ryazanov's Carnival Night and played Hanna in Yuriy Lysenko's Tavriya. Lastly, she played Nina in Nikolai Litus and Igor Zemgano's Obyknovennaya istoriya. She also appeared briefly in her husband Elem Klimov's film Sport, Sport, Sport, released in 1970.

Style and themes[edit]


Shepitko's style of filmmaking is often associated with realism. Her storytelling has a substantial amount of naturalism to it, often emitting a genuine depiction of the subject matter she explores. Most of her films are shot in black-and-white. She usually films in isolated settings with her shot compositions often focusing on body parts to make her characters seem more intimate. She also focuses on grand landscape shots and use of negative space to emphasize the isolated environments that her characters face. Some examples of this can be found in The Ascent, where two soldiers fend for themselves in the middle of a snowstorm, and in Wings where an ex-war-pilot flies alone to showcase her disconnect from modern society.[21]

Shepitko's style evokes a lot of visual, poetic symbolism. Much of this style was influenced by her teacher at VGIK, Alexander Dovzhenko.


The most noticeable theme in Shepitko's filmmaking career is war. More specifically, World War II in hindsight of how it relates to the modern age. In Wings, Shepitko depicts a post-World War II setting where an ex-pilot reminisces being seen as a hero of the war. For The Ascent, Shepitko describes in an interview that the reason for her wanting to make a film actually set during World War II was because she saw its thematic substance applicable to what she sought out of the modern climate of Soviet culture: “Each time period brings certain issues to the surface, and the question of heroism in today’s times is perhaps just as burning an issue now as it was in a time of war.”[22]

The Calvert Journal states that, "Shepitko is a political filmmaker, but one rooted firmly in humanism rather than ideology. Both Wings and The Ascent are fiercely pacifist works which explore — albeit from different angles — the tragic consequences of conflict. Heroic myths are brutally stripped away, leaving instead unapologetically unpatriotic accounts of the toxic cost of war."[21]

According to Shepitko's husband in his Larisa tribute short film, "Larisa came close to the central theme of her work—the unsparing judgement of oneself and the great responsibility each of us has for the things we’ve done in life." This was in response to his thoughts on her film You and Me, and how from there on forward this would become the prominent exploration in her films The Ascent and Farewell.

Shepitko's films sometimes also feature religious themes, like in The Ascent which uses the story of Judas and Jesus to compare and contrast her two main characters.

Personal life[edit]


In 1963, Shepitko met Elem Klimov while finishing her film Heat.[23] Later that year the two married. They had one child, Anton, who was born in 1973.


Shepitko struggled with physical and mental health problems at various points in her career.[24] While filming Heat, she came down with Hepatitis A and had to direct some scenes from a stretcher. Shepitko's repeated censorship took a toll on her mental health and she was hospitalized in a sanitorium after a breakdown in the early 1970s. While hospitalized, Shepitko suffered a fall that damaged her spine. This meant that she only barely survived giving birth to her son Anton in 1973.


Shepitko died in a car crash on a highway near the city of Tver with four members of her shooting team in 1979 while scouting locations for her planned adaptation of the novel Farewell to Matyora by Valentin Rasputin. Andrei Tarkovsky, a fellow filmmaker and friend of Shepitko, wrote in his journal about the event after attending her funeral, "... A car accident. All killed instantly. So suddenly, that not one of them had adrenaline in the blood. It seems that the driver fell asleep at the wheel. It was early morning. Between Ostachkovo and Kalinin".[25] Her husband, the director Elem Klimov, finished the work under the title Farewell and also made a 25-minute tribute entitled Larisa (1980).[26]

Farewell is about a small village on a beautiful island threatened with flooding. The film follows the inhabitants and their farewell to their homeland. "Critics maintained that the final product lacked Shepitko’s unique personal vision, obviously a point of view that could never be replicated". Composer Alfred Schnittke, who had worked with Shepitko many times previously on scoring her films, dedicated his String Quartet No. 2 (1981) to Shepitko's memory.

Klimov's tribute short film Larisa claims that Shepitko had been preparing all her life to make Farewell, and that it would have certainly been the high point of her career.[27]

The author of the novel that Farewell is based on, Valentin Rasputin, stated that, "...I wanted to try and prevent Matyora from being filmed. I wanted to preserve Matyora in its original genre, as a piece of prose, but Larisa managed to persuade me very quickly. She started describing what she imagined the future film to be like, and she was so passionate about it, so interested in it, that I completely forgot my intention not to let go of Matyora."[27]


Shepitko has made a total of seven feature-length films if you include the omnibus film Beginning of an Unknown Era and Farewell, the film her husband, Elem Klimov, finished for her after she died.

# Year Title Role Notes
1 1963 Heat Director [28]
2 1966 Wings Director [29][30][28]
3 1967 Beginning of an Unknown Era Director
4 1969 13 PM Director
5 1971 You and Me Director [28]
6 1977 The Ascent Director [31][28]
7 1983 Farewell Director Completed by Elem Klimov

after Shepitko's death

Awards And Nominations[edit]

Year Award Category Work Result Notes
1977 Berlin International

Film Festival

Golden Bear - Best Film The Ascent Won [5]
OCIC Award - Competition Won
FIPRESCI Prize - Competition Won
Interfilm Award Special

Mention - Competition


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schneider, Steven Jay (2007). 501 Movie Directors. Barrons Educational Series. p. 406. ISBN 978-0-7641-6022-6.
  2. ^ Peter Rollberg (2016). Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Cinema. US: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 667–668. ISBN 1442268425.
  3. ^ Ivan-Zadeh, Larushka (10 January 2005). "The lady vanishes". the Guardian. Retrieved 11 January 2023.
  4. ^ "| Berlinale | Archive | Yearbooks | Yearbooks". Archived from the original on 11 January 2023. Retrieved 11 January 2023.
  5. ^ a b "Which directors have won at the Berlin film festival?". the Guardian. 6 February 2015. Retrieved 11 January 2023.
  6. ^ Salys, Rimgaila (2013). The Russian Cinema Reader : Volume II, the Thaw to the Presen. Boston: MA: Academic Studies Press. pp. 14–15.
  7. ^ Oukaderova, Lida (2015). The Cinema of the Soviet Thaw : Space, Materiality, Movement. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 2.
  8. ^ A Harrowing Exploration of War and the Meaning of Human Existence: The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye, Larysa Shepitko, 1977), by Peter Wilshire. Off Screen, Volume 20, Issue 3, March 2016.
  9. ^ "Larisa". The Criterion Channel. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  10. ^ ""If She Does Not Do it, Then She Dies" the Story of Larisa Shepitko". Dauphine Productions. 2 June 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  11. ^ "Archive of films > Heat". KVIFF. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
  12. ^ "ВКФ (Всесоюзный кинофестиваль)" (in Russian). Archived from the original on 7 January 2011.
  13. ^ "Nachalo nevedomogo veka". IMDb.
  14. ^ "Berlinale 1977 – Filmdatenblatt". Archiv der Internationale Filmfestspiele in Berlin. 1977. Retrieved 27 February 2010.
  15. ^ ""If She Does Not Do it, Then She Dies" the Story of Larisa Shepitko". Dauphine Productions. 2 June 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  16. ^ "Berlinale 1978: Juries". Retrieved 4 August 2010.
  17. ^ "Shepitko, Larissa (1939–1979) |". Retrieved 20 August 2022.
  18. ^ Paikova, Valeria (26 March 2021). "Top 5 Soviet female movie directors". Russia Beyond. Retrieved 20 August 2022.
  19. ^ Sorokina, Anastasia (2017). "The Lady Vanishes: Soviet Censorship, Socialist Realism, and the Disappearance of Larisa Shepitko" (PDF).{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  20. ^ Sorokina, Anastasia (2017). "The Lady Vanishes: Soviet Censorship, Socialist Realism, and the Disappearance of Larisa Shepitko" (PDF).{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  21. ^ a b Pronger, Rachel. "How Larisa Shepitko's pursuit of truth produced a searing legacy of anti-war films". The Calvert Journal. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  22. ^ "Talks with Larisa - The Ascent". The Criterion Channel. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  23. ^ Lim, Dennis (10 August 2008). "Soviet films take wing again". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 11 January 2023.
  24. ^ Pronger, Rachel. "How Larisa Shepitko's pursuit of truth produced a searing legacy of anti-war films". The Calvert Journal. Retrieved 20 August 2022.
  25. ^ "Two films by Larisa Shepitko". (in French). Retrieved 17 March 2021.
  26. ^ Ivan-Zadeh, Larushka (9 January 2005). "The lady vanishes". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 August 2016.
  27. ^ a b "Larisa". The Criterion Channel. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  28. ^ a b c d Lawton, Anna (9 September 2010). Before the Fall: Soviet Cinema in the Gorbachev Years. New Acdemia+ORM. ISBN 978-1-122-84850-3.
  29. ^ Gillespie, David C. (25 September 2014). Russian Cinema. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-87412-6.
  30. ^ Baumgartner, Michael; Boczkowska, Ewelina (23 September 2019). Music, Collective Memory, Trauma, and Nostalgia in European Cinema after the Second World War. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-315-29843-6.
  31. ^ Paietta, Ann C. (18 November 2014). Teachers in the Movies: A Filmography of Depictions of Grade School, Preschool and Day Care Educators, 1890s to the Present. McFarland. p. 211. ISBN 978-1-4766-2034-3.


  • Michael Koresky, Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko, The Criterion Collection, 2008
  • Peter Wilshire, A Harrowing Exploration of War and the Meaning of Human Existence: The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye, Larisa Shepitko, 1977), Off Screen, Volume 20, Issue 3/March 2016
  • Quart, Barbara Koenig. 1988. Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema . New York: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-92962-0, OCLC 17385039.
  • Vronskaya, Jeanne. 1972. Young Soviet Film Makers. London: George Allen and Unwin

External links[edit]