The farther we get from it, the clearer it seems that the Age of the Waves the ’60s and ’70s, roughly demarcated was film culture’s own belle Ã©poque, glowing with post-teen hoochie koo and experimental piss and vinegar and hard-won grit, wherever movie tickets were sold and film stock could be bought. From the Parisian vague team to Budapest to Buenos Aires to even Hollywood, wavism spread over the globe like a supercool, ultra-realist virus, and as the home video digitization of film history continues, it’s become obvious that what we thought we knew about the New Waves barely scratches the nitrate. (In just the last two years, the discs have included previously unavailable, and little-seen, world-beaters by Godard, Marker, Teshigahara, Borowzcyk, Varda, Masumura, Rosi, Melville, Syberberg, Klein, and probably scads I missed.) A bewitching case in point: Larisa Shepitko, who was something like the gorgeous Lombard to husband Elem Klimov’s Gable, together the premier couple of the Khrushchev-thawed Soviet New Wave.
Luminaries in a generation that included Tarkovsky, German, Konchalovsky, Muratova and Iosseliani, the couple were made even more glam by their thorny run-ins with the censorship bureau and, most of all, by Shepitko’s tragic 1979 death in a car wreck, amidst shooting her fifth feature at the age of 40. (That movie, “Farewell to Matyora,” was completed by Klimov in a thrashing fit of scarred heartsickness; he would make only one more film, 1985’s terminal “Come and See,” before declaring himself through with the medium that had brought the two restless spirits together.) Shepitko herself may have been the more powerful sensibility, given that Klimov’s hellacious final work is, in retrospect, rather Shepitkovian, and in some ways a re-imagining of her last completed film, “The Ascent” (1977). This in-your-face Eastern Front war saga begins with breathtaking confidence in the Byelorussian forests, among Communist partisans running in the deep snow from Nazis and scrounging desperately for food. (Shepitko was always looking to upend expectations the elaborate gunfight with the Germans unfurls behind the opening credits.) Subsumed by icy whiteness, two soldiers on recon confront the wilderness, trade fire with distant patrols, and land, wounded and starving, in a farmhouse full of children, just in time for a Nazi patrol to show up. Thereafter, it’s the most ethically hysterical POW drama ever made, in a frontier dungeon that becomes a hothouse of betrayal. The partisans’ odyssey in the wilderness is picked over in interrogation (the local hilfswilliger doing the questioning and torturing is played by Tarkovsky fave Anatoli Solonitsyn), and measured against patriotism, collaborationism, partisanship, self-preservation and even spiritual sanctity.
Shepitko was a maestro at poetic visuals, as in the “Vampyr”-like close-up of the wounded partisan as the Nazi sled takes him through the countryside, the camera gently veering up to the sky and back again, or with the pas de deux between the other soldier and the farmhouse mother, in which he confronts her, blocking our view, and then she leans back into the frame, over and over again. “The Ascent” can be over-emphatic (especially in its acting), but there’s no escaping the final gallows scene, when a diminutive teenage we barely know helps out by placing the noose around her own neck.
Accompanying “The Ascent” in the new Criterion Eclipse set is a refreshing, heartfelt film we’d probably never otherwise get to see: Shepitko’s first feature, “Wings” (1966), nothing more in its rather spectacular way than a character portrait of a middle-aged woman (played by beloved character star Maya Bulgakova) caught in a menopausal lostness between her current, lonely and unadventurous life as a headmistress, and her previous life as aviatrix and war heroine. We find out her whole story only in the end, but meanwhile she’s an indelible character, and we’ve all met her before: proudly professional but unforgiving, silently bitter, capable of being overbearing, holding on to an ill-fitting masculinity, used to dominating the room and controlling her fate but finding out there’s less and less to control the older she gets. It’s the kind of subtle, realistic, unclichÃ©d role that hungry actors used to get in the New Wave era, and Bulgakova maintains complete control over her regal presence and repressed expressiveness. (There is also an unfortunate resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld.) Still, Shepitko doesn’t rely completely on her star a flashback passage sees only what the heroine sees, and the ending is, literally, pure, abstracted, unexpected flight. Made when Shepitko was only 28, it’s one of the great movies about women’s lives (that is, not about their place in the lives of men), and a rare exploration of female mid-life crisis a subject more prescient in Soviet culture, where women were officially encouraged to meet men equally in the tasks of culture and society, than in ours.
A much more obscure archival fossil, Franz Osten’s “A Throw of Dice” (1929) is for all intents an Indian silent, set in ancient times and detailing the backstabbing struggle between two young, gambling-obsessed provincial kings and their combative desire for a young maiden. Derived from “The Mahabharata” and fluid in its use of landscape, the movie is actually a passionate work of Euro-exoticism, co-produced by a British company (British Instructional Films) and directed by a German ex-expressionist who later belonged to the Nazi party even as he lived in India and continued making Indian films, in Hindi. Made for everyone, it would seem, other than Indians, in the same year that a modern Indian flag was first flown over Lahore in defiance of British control, Osten’s film is a revealing and pulpy fancy, on one hand exploiting the escapist nature of cinema as ethnographic spectacle (showing audiences what they’d only read and dreamed about), and on the other indulging in imperialist assumptions. (Germans have always had a cartoony yen for the subcontinent, as we saw 30 years later in Fritz Lang’s “The Indian Tomb” diptych.) Ironically, when “A Throw of Dice” was restored and shown in London last year, it attracted crowds of desi emigres, just as seducible by fairy tale visions of the old country as the First Worlders had been three generations earlier.
[Photos: “The Ascent,” 1977, Criterion; “Wings,” 1966, Criterion; “A Throw of Dice,” 1929, Hollywood Pictures Corporation]
“Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko” (Criterion Collection) and “A Throw of Dice” (Kino International) and are now available on DVD.