FROM SILENT TO STREAMING
EPISODE 3: WINGS
Larisa Shepitko is quite possibly the greatest filmmaker that no one knows about. Born in 1938 in the Soviet Union, Shepitko and her family were deeply affected by World War Two having to face hunger, poverty, and constantly moving to avoid the danger and violence. The War would certainly shape her films, especially her most popular film, The Ascent, which in 1977 won the “Golden Bear” at the Berlin International Film Festival. Shepitko had a reputation for pushing herself and her crew very hard, enduring very difficult conditions like the freezing Russian winter in The Ascent, or the sweltering heat that actually melted film stocks on her award winning student film, Heat. Shepitko was a student in Moscow of the legendary Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko, even adopting his motto: “Make every film as if it’s your last.” Sadly, this would be prophetic of The Ascent as two years later in 1979, while scouting locations for her next film, Shepitko was killed in a car accident at the age of 41.
Wings, from 1966, is an outstanding, emotional character study of a former Soviet fighter pilot. Nadya, a decorated fighter pilot, now 41 years old and the principal of a vocational college, finds herself struggling to connect with the changing society around her. From the opening scene we see that she is a very well respected, even powerful woman as she commands the men around her at the college. Her appearance is a brilliant move by Shepitko as Nadya is seen in a stiff business suit with very short, cropped hair. She almost appears to be a man even though we do see her having a relationship with a man who works at a museum and we find out that she has a daughter. The film uses classic Russian editing as Shepitko shot several point of view shots of Nadya’s face in close-up with reverse shots of her surroundings. Nadya wanders through the movie almost ghostlike as she really only gets noticed as her former self, “The ace female fighter pilot”, which only adds to the strain that she is facing: how does she move on from the War when it seems to be the only thing that defines her? It also seems to hold back her feminine qualities, as she seems very indifferent to the affections of her museum worker boyfriend, Pavel, as well as her clumsy and awkward interactions with her estranged daughter Tanya. When visiting Tanya and her new husband, Nadya comes off more like the stern “father of the bride” than the doting mother.
The film’s title is exploited with great precision by Shepitko. Breaks in the film come with aerial shots from planes ascending high into the sky and breaking through the clouds. The accompanying opera music adds another level of beauty to these already magnificent black and white shots. It certainly puts the viewer in a position of being not only inside the cockpit but also inside Nadya’s head and feeling, perhaps, the same freedom she felt in the skies as compared to her life as a stern principal.
For me, the most telling scene came when Nadya returns to the air field and visits her old squadron. Towards the end of the film, this is not her first visit to the air field but it will be different than all of the others. Nadya finds an old fighter plane unattended and climbs into the cockpit. Now in the cockpit, Nadya, shot in closeup, the emotions and the memory from the War consumes Nadya. She begins to weep before a group of airmen notice her and give her a ceremonial push around the field. The scene is surprisingly almost identical to the one with Dana Andrews in William Wyler’s, The Best Years of Our Lives, where Fred, a former bomber pilot from World War Two, also facing his own struggle in adapting to post war life back home, finds a graveyard of old Bombers. He climbs into the cockpit and in a brilliant shot by Wyler, is shot from outside the glass bubble. This gives him an the appearance of being captive as he is frozen with emotion, hearing the sounds of War blaring in his head. One cannot miss the irony of how two respected filmmakers from the United States and the Soviet Union chose identical ways to express the pain and sorrow of soldiers returning to normal life after the Second World War.
Wings from 1966 is an outstanding debut from Larisa Shepitko, one of Soviet cinema’s and World cinema’s greatest filmmakers.