Freeze, Die, Come To Life

Soviet auteurs get glowing tribute at Walter Reade



Walter Reade Theater

165 W. 65th St.

May 19–30

212-875-5600 or

For some time now, one of the flowers of local repertory programming has been Seagull Films, whose partnership with the Film Society of Lincoln Center has generated indispensable surveys of the 1960s Soviet Thaw, Lenfilm Studios, and Central Asian cinemas, plus retrospectives of Boris Barnet, Alexander Dovzhenko, and Kira Muratova.

Seagull honcho Alla Verlotsky now uncorks a tribute to the Soviet auteurs Larisa Shepitko and Elem Klimov, devoted soulmates and two of their generation’s brightest. Perhaps less familiar to U.S. audiences than other censored, then unshelved artists like Alexander Sokurov or Alexei Gherman, Klimov played a direct and decisive role in liberating unknown stagnation-period treasures, while Shepitko was prematurely lost in an auto accident during pre-production on the environmental drama “Farewell.”

At age nine, Klimov—whose given name was reputedly an acronym of Engels, Lenin, and Marx—escaped the 1942 siege of Stalingrad on a raft across the flaming Volga. Likewise, Shepitko’s family abandoned their Ukrainian home before a Nazi advance, fleeing to shelter and privation in the Urals. Both ended up at VGIK and studied with Mikhail Romm, whose “Nine Days in a Year” featured in Seagull’s Thaw series. The budding couple’s diploma films—Shepitko’s “Heat,” adapted from Kirghiz author Chingiz Aitmatov, and Klimov’s “Welcome, or No Trespassing,” a gently satiric Young Pioneers caper—kick off the new series.

The young marrieds cut a svelte profile in Moscow’s Khrushchev-era demimonde, but both were dogged early and often by state censorship. Shepitko’s war-widow drama “Wings” was thought too downbeat, and Klimov’s “Adventures of a Dentist” found unacceptable for its tart allegory of a precocious dentist who, having devised a butta-smooth, procaine-free extraction method, is sabotaged by his less gifted peers, enforcing a mediocrity all too redolent of the strictures of Socialist Realism. “Dentist” was slapped with a “category three” classification for its impudence, and went virtually unseen.

After the short “Homeland of Electricity,” made for a decommissioned omnibus film marking the revolution’s 50th anniversary, and the male midlife-crisis spiel “You and I,” Shepitko would achieve her testament with “The Ascent,” a war saga following two red partisans and three peasants taken captive by Nazis in a rimy Belorussian winter. Daring to depict civilian collaborators with unprecedented nuance, Shepitko steers through ever more harrowing set-pieces to a gallows climax staged like Golgotha.

“Agony” is Klimov’s rendition of the fall of Grigori Rasputin, the power behind Nicholas II, last of the Romanov tsars. Framed with newsreel montages of the famines and rioting preceding the revolution, this opulent widescreen epic first shows the monk regnant, in cahoots with the talcum-frosted Tsarina Alexandra (Velta Line). Gutless Nicholas (Anatoly Romashin), dodging his generals, slips behind a wall map of Russia and bursts in mid-miracle, as Rasputin “cures” a lame princeling. Keeping a harem of black-wimpled nuns and prone to snatching society dames from the opera foyer in lecherous fits, he tends his flock with such pastoral counsel as, “You’ll go to the trenches!”

Richly motivated, his protracted plummet is enthralling, with loyalists and a Tibetan guru called Owl hatching assassination schemes amid atriums of swaddled elites puffing through Kundalini breathing sessions. As the diabolical monk, Alexei Petrenko storms through his role flashing lizard-green eyes and a Manson leer, mopping the lavish sets with the supporting ensemble and finally, like tyranny itself, refusing to die. Though available on DVD from Kino, the Walter Reade will present the restored, unexpurgated director’s cut.

A decade wore by before Klimov’s other masterpiece “Come and See,” which mined his childhood traumas to evoke a young conscript’s descent into the inferno during the Nazi campaign in Belarus. Midway between, Klimov faced the tragic duty of completing “Farewell,” which Shepitko had adapted, cast, and was primed to shoot when she and five crewmembers collided with a truck. Graced by Alfred Shnitke’s modernist score and otherworldly Siberian locations, “Farewell” portrays the forced evacuation of a fictional island to prepare for a dam that will drown their homes and obliterate their histories.

“Farewell” deserves a good long look. In specific ways, unfolding events have given what scholar Julian Graffy calls the film’s “desperate ecological warning” wider currency, as suggested by Putin’s surprising April 26 decree that construction of the $11.5-billion Irkutsk-Pacific oil pipeline must detour the fragile drainage basin of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake, contravening earlier plans. But in more fundamental ways, we cannot heed its intimations enough, and it invites sobering reflection on our date with climate upheaval in the decades ahead.

Not coincidentally, the Shepitko/Klimov series opens exactly twenty years and a day after Klimov was elected to head the Union of Soviet Filmmakers at its fifth congress, in one of the most effusive displays of Gorbachev’s glasnost. During his two years at the helm, Klimov used the Conflict Commission to reinstate many previously blackballed artists and enabled the unshelving of dozens of banned titles, including such revelations as Alexander Askoldov’s “Commissar,” Alexei Gherman’s “Trial on the Road,” Gleb Panfilov’s “The Theme,” Irakli Kvirikadze’s “The Swimmer,” and others which exploded western notions of Soviet cinema’s later development.

Klimov answered history’s call heroically, if at some personal cost. Despite repeated cracks at Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” “Come and See” remained Klimov’s last film, as newly liberalized screen images fueled appetites his classicism could never sate. This exceptional series does much to render two great, neglected artists their due.