On June 2 1979 one of cinema's greatest female directors was killed in a car crash outside Leningrad. She was 39. Her name was Larisa Shepitko, and, even if you're a film buff, the chances are you've never heard of her. Barely any of Shepitko's mesmerising films have been screened in Britain. None is available on DVD. In fact they're scarcely shown, or known, in Russia. Yet, at the time of her sudden death, Shepitko was hot property on the international film circuit: she was young for a film-maker; she was strikingly attractive; her exquisite masterpiece The Ascent had won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin festival. She had all the live-fast-die-young glamour that would ensure instant icon status for far inferior artists.
So why has Shepitko's work remain buried for so long? For the answer, look no further than Lenin's declaration that "film for us, is the most important art". Shepitko did not find it easy to satisfy communism's cultural commissars.
Born in Ukraine in 1938, Shepitko was one of three children raised by her schoolteacher mother. Her father, a Persian officer, had abandoned his family through early divorce - an act that Larisa never forgave. When she enrolled in the Moscow film academy in 1955, her dramatic eyes and dark, cheekboned elegance attracted much attention. However, her sole focus was film-making, and in 1958 she studied direction at the State Institute for Cinematography (VGIK), a few years behind Andrei Tarkovsky. Her tutor was Alexander Dovzhenko, a towering figure of early Soviet cinema and contemporary of Eisenstein. His poetical imagery and passionate celebration of Ukranian folk culture were a marked influence on the young Shepitko, who called him "my mentor" and took to heart his motto: "You have to approach each film as if it were your last."
Shepitko's graduation film, Heat (1963), was an extraordinary first undertaking. A daring fusion of political drama and Western-style showdown between an idealistic high-school youth and a Stalinist farm leader, it was shot on the barren steppes in such extreme climate conditions that Shepitko fell dangerously ill. Stretchered off set, she called in another young film-maker to help complete the project; this was her fellow VGIK student Elem Klimov, whose war film Come and See (1985) Stephen Spielberg would later cite as an influence on Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.
Elem (named from the first letters of Engels, Lenin, Marx) had previously proposed marriage to Shepitko, but, like all the others, been rejected. Now he was accepted - but only after he vowed he wouldn't try to influence Shepitko's work.
United by intelligence, introspection and a certain dash, the Klimovs, along with Tarkovsky, were at the forefront of the Russian "New Wave" that flourished under Khrushchev before the cultural clampdown of 1967-8. In 1966 Shepitko was able to create her controversial second feature, Wings, which drew a stellar performance from Maya Bulgakova as a once-famous Stalinist fighter pilot now a disenchanted provincial schoolteacher. ...