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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Psychologist Filmmaker: Gem of Soviet Cinema

The brilliant storytelling and examination of the human mind in Larisa Shapitko's films continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles. Read about the Soviet filmmaker with a special focus on her 1977's War Classic, The Ascent.

Only a few filmmakers have created a legacy that will last forever. A gem in the crown of Soviet cinema, the counterpart of Andrei Tarkovsky, Larisa Shepitko, is one of those few filmmakers. Her films Heat (1963), Wings (1966), You and I (1971), and the epic war drama The Ascent (1977) speak for themselves and are a true testament to her legacy.

Larisa Shepitko crafted complex narratives where men find it difficult to survive, a body of cinematic work that teaches us the psyche of a human. Passing away tragically, she left behind a body of cinematic work that will stand out in the years to come.

Among her films, The Ascent is one of the greatest pieces of art ever made. The narrative set in WWII revolves around the struggle of two Soviet Guirrellas, who are the perfect study of heroism and cowardice. The film does not teach us how to behave or who our role model should be, but through the struggle of Ryback and Sotnikov, it tells us about the horrible situations humans can find themselves in.

In The Ascent, Larisa exposes the heroic and patriotic stereotypes. Instead of depicting the enemy as terrible or villainous, she humanizes them, making us feel more sympathetic to them. The characters, Ryback and Sotnikov, are so faulty that they call into question the traditional definition of heroism, favoring reality above ideological realism.

What I find most common about Larisa Shepitko and other great storytellers of this art form is that they used this medium to express their conscious, unconscious, and subconscious. In a way, they are telling us what their understanding of life and humans is. We live in an era where cinema is viewed as nothing more than a source of amusement, and this perception can only be dispelled by becoming cinema-literate.

Read More: From ‘Taxi Driver’ to ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’: 5 Must-Watch Scorsese Films

To be a cinema literate is understanding the film’s underlying meaning.


Ryback is presented in The Ascent as a hardened soldier, but as the narrative develops, layers of emotional strain and anxiety emerge. His will to survive at whatever cost, regardless of the well-being of others, inspires viewers to appreciate and grasp the film’s themes of courage and cowardice. Instead of glorifying the violence, Larisa Shepitko explores the shades of gray, delving deep into the complexities of war. There are a limited number of dialogues; this approach helps us focus more on the emotions and expressions of the characters, allowing us to better understand what is going through the characters’ minds.

Larisa Shepitko’s early films laid the foundation for her to establish the necessary elements for exploring the frailty of the human mind. She used every one of these films as a medium to portray the human experiences of love, sorrow, and the difficulties of life. However, The Ascent is her ultimate masterpiece, a reflection of true human emotions during times of war.

Tragically, Larisa Shepitko’s life and career came to an end when, while scouting locations for the film adaptation of Valentin Rasputin’s novel “Farewell to Matyora,” she and four crew members were killed in a car crash in 1979. Later, her husband, Elem Klimov, another Soviet gem best known for directing “Come and See 1985,” finished the film.

Her body of work reminds us of the ability of cinema to trigger questioning and illuminate the darkness of life as a whole. Larisa Shepitko’s films highlight the importance of storytelling. It provokes us to study the dark side of the human psyche. She may have departed too soon, but her legacy as a Soviet gem will continue to inspire future filmmakers and cinephiles.

The restored versions of Wings 1966 and The Ascent 1977 can be streamed on YouTube.


The author is currently pursuing Mass Communication at the Riphah Institute of Media Sciences. He has a strong and enduring passion for classic films and the craft of film-making.