He was tall and imposing, born the son of ardent Communists in Stalingrad. She was a beauty from Ukraine who studied film under Aleksandr Dovzhenko, the renowned director of Earth. Husband-and-wife directors Elem Klimov and Larissa Shepitko were not only an attractive couple, but archetypal "new era" Soviet filmmakers -- at least until their artistic aspirations ran up against the stifling politics of the apparatchiks in the waning days of the USSR.
Their parallel careers carried a whiff of doom. Shepitko died early, and Klimov completed only six features including the 1982 Farewell, which he finished for his wife after her death in an auto accident during the production. Shepitko's entire filmography consists of eight films, five of which are screening, alongside seven of her husband's, in "Farewell: A Tribute to Elem Klimov and Larissa Shepitko," an irresistible package of twelve titles at the Pacific Film Archive, presented by Seagull Films with help from the Russian Federal Agency for Culture and Cineconcern Mosfilm.
Shepitko and Klimov were children of the Stalinist era -- Klimov's first name is a conflation of Engels, Lenin, and Marx -- and they lived through the national nightmare of World War II. Their films, despite occasional side trips into magical-realist territory, resound with the social realism of classic Soviet agitprop. Shepitko's 1967 short Homeland of Electricity, part of a compilation in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution, has the earmarks of a lost Dovzhenko, in its story of a determined electrician trying to bring power to a village. Both directors were keenly aware of the epic sweep of Russian history, but in their work as well is a restless, individualistic modernism struggling to break out. That modernism caused trouble with the censors, especially in Klimov's case.
Agonia -- Rasputin, scheduled for October 15 at the PFA in a new print that restores deleted scenes, tells the well-known tale of Grigory Rasputin, the scenery-chewing "mad monk" who held a mystical/sexual power over the household of Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra on the eve of the Russian Revolution. From the vantage point of 1975, Klimov portrays the situation as a freewheeling absurdist carnival of grotesque laughs, always with the threat of violence. There's more than a trace of Charles Manson, plus a shpritz of Jim Morrison, in actor Alexei Petrenko's portrayal of Rasputin, guzzling booze, crawling on all fours, cavorting with a harem of rich ladies, rolling in a mud puddle, and issuing disastrous battle plans in his sleep while the puzzled, mild-mannered czar looks on. That comic-opera version of the decadence of old Russia must have rankled Moscow authorities -- Agonia was put on the shelf until 1984. Nevertheless, in 1986 Klimov was elected first secretary of the Soviet Filmmakers' Union, an appropriate post for a director clearly ready for the openness of glasnost.
As it was for almost every Russian of their generation, the Great Patriotic War Against Fascism, aka WWII, was the central event of Shepitko and Klimov's lives. The terrible struggle against the "gray-green slugs" of Hitler's army (twenty million people died in the USSR) was the subject of the pair's best movies as well. Shepitko's The Ascent (1977), which opens the PFA series this Thursday (7 p.m.), takes place in Byelorussia in the bitter winter of 1942, as bands of partisans rise up in the countryside to oppose the German blitzkrieg into Mother Russia. Two comrades, Sotnikov and Rybak, are given the task of raiding a nearby village for food, but things go wrong. Very wrong. Shepitko's close-ups of the two partisans and a strong farm wife named Demchikha are worthy of Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin -- a grainy black-and-white newsreel look, all stressed faces with open pores, beautifully shot by Shepitko's DP Vladimir Chukhnov. The scenario's religious overtones notwithstanding, its brutal realism is overwhelming. Shepitko and crew made the film on location in subzero temperatures. When a character tries to run through knee-high snow or manages to get his head frozen to a tree, we can feel the chill.
Klimov's 1985 Come and See, the series finale on October 20, puts us in the same Nazi-occupied Byelorussia in 1943, this time as experienced by a teenage boy named Florian who joins, leaves, and then rejoins the partisans in a spiraling crescendo of chaos. Come and See is simply a masterpiece, one of a handful of indispensable films out of all the hundreds of movies made about WWII. The horrors Florian witnesses have been well noted before -- Klimov has been quoted as saying that if he used all the things he witnessed in the evacuation of Stalingrad, no one could bear to watch it. But the director's patient, calculated despair, combined with a startling visual style, are ultimately what put Come and See in the first rank of war films. The astounding confusion of the opening scene, the surrealism of Florian's wanderings through the countryside, his wounded love scenes with the girl Glasha, the brilliant sound engineering by Viktor Mors, Florian's transformation from a teenager into an old man in a few days -- every scene drives home its point, plainly, that man's inhumanity to man is incurable. The final sequence, in which the camera tracks along hesitantly at the edge of the forest as Florian and the rest of the partisans disappear into the woods, suggests that where these men are going, we should not follow.
Klimov and his wife survived the war. Shepitko just didn't live long enough to take advantage of the era of perestroika. The one Shepitko film to see if you're seeing only one is Wings, a 1966 drama that seems to encapsulate the bittersweet sense of wonderment her generation must have felt in the days when the rest of Europe was occupied with mods on motor scooters, Jean-Luc Godard, and the Rolling Stones, but most Russians over thirty were still recovering from the Great War. Nadya Petrukhina (played wonderfully by Maya Bulgakova), a former air force pilot who achieved heroine status during the war, now finds herself, twenty years later, alone in a strange new world in her peacetime job as a high-school principal. Almost none of the characters in her life -- a bratty boy student, her adopted daughter and the daughter's husband, the nincompoop assistant principal, Nadya's diffident boyfriend Pasha -- can see past her strict demeanor into her free-spirit soul. The only time she can let her hair down is over beer with a local female bartender, or in daydreams about her lover, Mitya, who crashed and died. Or, in the movie's soaring final scene, inside the cockpit of a training plane high above a military airfield. Wings, a joy of a film very much in the spirit of the '60s, screens on October 8.
Both Shepitko and Klimov visited the PFA in Berkeley at various times, where they were welcomed as emblematic of the new breed of Russian filmmakers, mindful of the past but with eyes fixed on the future. It's intriguing to imagine what they might have accomplished had they worked in a different place or time (Klimov died in 2003, but never directed another film after Come and See). But, of course, that particular time and place made them what they were. Visit BAMPFA.berkeley.edu for a full schedule of their films.
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