The Ukrainian director Larisa Shepitko completed only five features in her tragically short career (she was killed in a car accident in 1979). But even over the course of such a brief working life she produced a remarkably cohesive oeuvre, and developed a powerful aesthetic and vision that distinguished her from her more famous and revered contemporaries – Sergei Paradjanov and Andrei Tarkovsky (with whom she studied) in particular – even as she shared with these figures specific stylistic tropes and institutional contexts that helped characterise them as the second great generation of Soviet filmmakers after Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, et al. in the 1920s. She learned her craft at the VGIK, Russia’s State Institute for cinematography and one of a slew of Moscow-based institutes that, as Jean Radvanyi notes, were “crucial to the development of the [Soviet] national cinemas” (1). Following this, Shepitko worked in Central Asia in an initiative designed to fertilise the cinematic soil of the Soviet republics.
This paradigm of typicality and divergence, concordance and dissonance, provides a productive means of exploring both Shepitko’s career in general and her first films in particular. Wings (Krylya) was Shepitko’s first professional feature after she graduated (with the project Znoy [Heat, 1963]) from the VGIK. Chief, though by no means sole, among its achievements is precisely its duality in regards to its Russianness. Whilst it has one foot planted firmly in Russian cinema, in particular the generic and narrative trends that helped to define the country’s filmmaking in the 1960s, it nonetheless also looks beyond the borders of the national. Indeed, more so than any of her fellow Soviet directors, Shepitko seems fully versed in the canonical art cinema that exploded in Europe in the decade in which she came to prominence as a director.
With respect to its immediate historical context, Wings can be positioned within what is arguably the pre-eminent genre of late 1950s and 1960s Soviet cinema: the war film. Coming to prominence with Mikhail Kalatozov’s Palme d’Or winning Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying) in 1957, this genre became the standard-bearer for a new Soviet cinema that, paradoxically, finally began to cast off the imposing dictates of the socialist realism that had for twenty years been the legacy of Stalinism and might have been supposed to yield overly propagandistic results in such a form. This generic framework had been used by Grigori Chukrai in his debut, Sorok pervyy (The Forty-First, 1956), and more famously three years later in his second picture Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, 1959). It was then taken up by Sergei Bondarchuk in his debut, The Destiny of a Man (Sudba cheloveka, 1959), and of course by Tarkovsky in his first feature, Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962). The salient narrative pattern in a majority of these films is that of the picaresque, a journey that foregrounds and highlights an intimate, individual perspective on traumatic events as a single, scarred protagonist moves through a landscape torn apart by war and destruction. It is a formal conceit that facilitates an engagement with the psychological as much as the physical cost of war as it follows the classic road movie formula of mirroring exterior and interior journeys. Wings is similarly built around such an antinomy.
Shepitko would go on to even greater heights in this form with her valedictory masterpiece, Voskhozhdeniye (The Ascent) thirteen years later. However, though not set during wartime, Wings follows the picaresque form in emphasising the protagonist Nadezhda’s similarly troubled movement through a world following war, a world with its own pressures and problems that appear to weigh on the ex-pilot even more heavily as she struggles with the everyday torments of family, job and relationships. It is in this respect that Wings emerges as an almost paradigmatic European art cinema text. It seems particularly indebted to the works of Michaelangelo Antonioni, who himself made a number of films (L’avventura , La notte , L’eclisse , The Red Desert ) depicting alienated souls in flight through a modern landscape that frequently oppresses and entraps them. Like these films’ central characters, Nadezhda is similarly shown in protracted transit through the city, a ghost floating through a hollow urban world that bears down upon her. And this Shepitko captures in almost documentary detail, reconstituting the once nationally-favoured mode of realism and naturalism as redolent of blank spaces and surfaces that are then filled in with and compensated for by way of memories and a vibrant interior life.
One can begin to see here the extent to which dichotomies and oppositions structure and animate Wings. This also emerges in the (Tarkovskian) juxtaposition and tension between objectivity and subjectivity, between looking at and looking with the protagonist. In this textual correlative of the aforementioned generic dichotomy between the specifically Russian and the international, the subtextual notion is one of perspective, of different ways and structures of looking and seeing. In other words, the two lives (glorious, heroic past and insecure, uncertain present) of the protagonist are chiefly elucidated through competing views, the contrastive ways in which she is depicted as being seen and regarded by others as distinct from her own view of herself (2). The fact that the film stresses the performance of multitudinous roles and types (personal and professional matriarch, lover, even war hero) as the mainstay of Nadezhda’s life reinforces this notion. But more prominent are those scenes, most especially the one in her newly married daughter’s flat with her son-in-law and all his friends, that highlight Nadezhda at the awkward centre of a great deal of attention – attention, moreover, that she foists on herself precisely because of her own insecure behaviour.
Against this are juxtaposed Nadezhda’s remembrances of things past. Shepitko reinforces a sense of fracture by introducing successive acts of the drama through aerial shots soaring through clouds. These majestic flights of remembered freedom contrast markedly with the tight compositions of the myriad drab interiors that Nadezhda often finds herself within. Ultimately, away from the immediate setting of war, this tension within the protagonist of Wings can more aptly be taken as a potent symbol of her nation (as a figure caught between looking back and moving forward, and who is placed, in 1966, at the forefront of exaggerated displays of visibility on the world stage that edged the Soviet Union ever closer to another war). This is understated and implicit in Shepitko’s deceptively straightforward drama, but it goes some way to conveying the film’s rich layers of meaning, a sense of its own interior life.
- Jean Radvanyi, “Cinema in the Soviet Republics”, The Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996. p. 652.
- Shepitko also stresses this duality by her repetition of various situations and motifs, especially that of Nadezhda sitting at home after a meeting with her prospective partner and hesitantly calling after him as he leaves.
Krylya/Wings (1966 USSR 85 mins)
Prod Co: Mosfilm Dir: Larisa Shepitko Scr: Valentin Ezhov, Natalya Ryazantseva Phot: Igor Slabnevich Ed: L. Lysenkova Prod Des: Ivan Plastinkin Mus: Roman Ledenyov
Cast: Maya Bulgakova, Sergei Nikonenko, Zhanna Bolotova, Pantelejmon Krymov, Leonid Dyachkov, Vladimir Gorelov