After the death of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet state’s iron grip on filmmakers began to loosen. Nikita Kruschev actively encouraged more freedom in the arts, and in the mid-fifties Soviet cinema began to flourish once again. Realizing that the public was weary of whitewashed historical spectacles where the noble worker always triumphed, filmmakers chose to create more intimate works that focussed on individuals.
Larisa Shepitko was one of the young filmmakers who embraced this new approach. A graduate of VGIK, the Soviet film school, Shepitko’s work places more emphasis on people than politics, though her characters’ conflicts are played out against the background of the world they live in. Wings is the story of Nadezhda, once a celebrated pilot in the Russian Air Force, now headmistress at a school. She’s intelligent, dedicated and hardworking, but she can’t escape the feeling that her life is empty. In the opening shot we see a tailor measuring her for a coat, and this slow, methodical process sums up the monotony that characterizes her life.
The screenplay, by Valentin Ezhov and Natalya Ryazantseva, digs deep into the mind and spirit of this complicated woman. We see that she’s a smart, capable administrator, but she can’t relate to the young people who surround her at the school. We see her spending time with a male friend who obviously adores her, but she seems faintly bored by his company. The most important thing in her life is her relationship with her daughter, Tanya. Nadezhda desperately wants to be close to Tanya. But the mother is so judgmental, so controlling, that she’s continually pushing her daughter away.
It’s not that Nadezhda can’t feel love, or even that she can’t show love. Throughout the film she tries to connect with the people around her, but in the end she always insists that they adhere to her standards. What makes it even harder to bear is that she knows this. Nadezhda sees what she’s doing, and still can’t stop herself. And so there’s a constant tension inside of her. She’s always feeling the need to reach out and it’s always trumped by the need to maintain control.
The only moments where we see her relax, where we see her step outside of herself, are the wistful reveries where she imagines herself flying again. In these lovely, lyrical sequences, we’re floating with her through the air, gliding peacefully past billowing, white clouds. The only sound we hear is a sad, lilting motif played on strings that underscores her longing for the freedom she felt soaring through the sky.
While Shepitko uses music sparingly, it’s an important part of the film’s emotional fabric. The composer, Roman Ledenyov, shows an intuitive understanding of what’s needed. It’s a small scale score, well suited to this intimate exploration of a woman’s life. A quiet conversation is accompanied by an airy passage played on celeste. As Nadezhda rides a crowded bus we hear woodwinds playing a vague, dissonant cue. The only time when the score seems to open up is when she remembers the freedom of flying through the skies. The short, ethereal phrases played by the strings in these sequences suggest a sense of peace, but also a heavy melancholy.
In the final sequence, Nadezhda visits the airfield she knows from her days as a pilot. As a lark, some of the young people who are learning to fly put her in the cockpit of a small plane and push it across the field. They mean it as an affectionate joke. For her, knowing that they see her as an old woman, past her prime, it’s humiliating. So just before they roll her plane into the hangar, she starts the engine, taxis down the runway and takes off into the sky. It’s a brief escape. When she returns to earth again, all her burdens will be as heavy as before. But for a while she can remember what it’s like to soar above the clouds. For a moment, she’s free again.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian culture was a hotbed of innovation. In constant conversation with Europe, Russian painters, writers, musicians and filmmakers were rapidly absorbing new ideas from France, Italy and Germany, and blazing new trails of their own.
When the Revolution occurred in 1917, it only seemed to add fuel to the fire. Artists were called on to promote the creation of a new social order, and many of them responded enthusiastically. But there was a shift in direction. Now the ideal was not art for art’s sake, but art that served the people. And so the photographer Alexander Rodchenko began designing posters and packaging. Liubov Popova went from creating paintings to creating textiles. Vladimir Tatlin, known for his abstract constructions, was commissioned to build a monument to the Revolution.
Film was to play a key role in educating people about communist concepts. Since much of the population was illiterate, it was important to communicate the ideals of the Revolution without words, and film had proven its potential as a tool for propaganda. Initially filmmakers were encouraged to experiment, and people like Eisenstein, Vertov and Dovzhenko created visually dazzling features that celebrated the common man.
Among this group of innovators was Vsevelod Pudovkin. In 1927, on the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, he directed The End of St. Petersburg to commemorate the overthrow of the Tsar and the transition to a new society. The story is blunt propaganda. It tells us how the simple, honest workers rise up to defeat the soulless, corrupt capitalists. A starving farm boy comes to St. Petersburg looking for work at a factory. Hoping for help, he calls on a friend, but the friend’s wife says she has nothing to offer and turns him away. When a strike is called at the factory, he jumps at the chance for a job without realizing what he’s getting into. Caught in the middle of a chaotic situation, confused as to what’s going on, he fingers one of the strike’s leaders, who is then arrested. Realizing what he’s done, the boy sets out to correct his mistake, but runs up against the evil oppressors and is thrown in jail.
In the hands of a lesser director this would be a dreary tract. But Pudovkin takes simplistic propaganda and creates an epic canvas populated by mythic characters. And somehow, even though the characters are all archetypes, the director makes them searingly human. Much of this is because of the way Pudovkin handles the actors. In the first place, these are not movie stars. They look like ordinary people. The faces of the peasants on the farm are weathered and worn. It’s not hard to believe they’ve been ploughing these desolate fields for years. When tragedy strikes, the actors don’t dramatize their pain. Instead they confront suffering with a weary stoicism. It’s as though a life of backbreaking labor has robbed them of their emotions.
But Pudovkin doesn’t just speak through his actors. He also speaks through images. The film is a blistering visual poem. When we arrive in the city, Pudovkin doesn’t just show us a factory. He creates a montage that assaults us with the terrifying energy and sweltering heat of the Industrial Age. Giant steel wheels spin, vats spill streams of molten metal and chimneys spew vast clouds of black smoke into the sky. The workers are scorched and spattered. They look as though they’ve been pushed to their limits. And so when the factory manager insists that they put in more hours, they refuse. They’ve had enough.
A strike is called. The capitalists crush it. The boy from the farm and the leader of the strike are made soldiers and sent to fight the Germans. But rather than making the war sequences about their struggle for survival, The End of St. Petersburg takes a completely different approach. The horrific images of violence and death are intercut with scenes of stock market traders frantically buying and selling their shares. Prices climb higher and higher on the exchange as the body count rises on the battlefield. When the fighting is over, the titles tell us, “The transaction is completed. Both parties are satisfied.”
Most propaganda films end on a celebratory note. Here the final scenes are muted. The revolutionary forces overthrow the monarchy, but at great cost. After the battle is won, the soldiers who fought to take the Winter Palace are tired and hungry, on the verge of exhaustion. The woman who had turned the boy away earlier comes to the Winter Palace looking for her husband. As she climbs the steps, she comes across the boy, lying on the ground, wounded and weary. Though she sent him away earlier, now she kneels and holds him in her arms. Knowing he must be hungry, she gives him the little food she has left, a handful of potatoes. This simple, caring gesture is more powerful than any revolutionary slogan, any celebration of the workers’ triumph. Pudovkin may have been making propaganda, but ultimately he was more interested in people.
This brief period of astounding creativity in Russian cinema was short lived. As Stalin consolidated his power, he exerted more and more control, not just over filmmakers, but also writers, composers and other artists. The idealism that had lifted them to new heights, that had inspired them to make revolutionary art, was crushed. It would be decades before Russian cinema found its voice again.