Larisa Shepitko’s 1966 film Wings opens on a crowded street, along which unending streams of people flow ceaselessly both left and right. From this crowd, it appears, one man suddenly turns toward the viewer; the camera then pulls back to reveal that he’s a tailor walking through his quiet, nearly empty shop, undisturbed by the mass of humanity outside his window. His focus is on a customer, a middle-aged woman (Maya Bulgakova) who’s waiting for him in a dressing room. With skillful hands, he takes her measurements for a jacket and skirt, noting the width of her shoulders, the circumference of her waist, and so on and so on, until at last he announces his verdict: “Standard size.” But while that may be true of her clothing, it soon becomes painfully clear that Nadezhda Petrukhina is not a woman built for a standard size life.
Some twenty-odd years back, during World War II — or, more accurately for the film’s Soviet setting, the Great Patriotic War — Nadezhda (also called Nadya) was a fighter pilot. Having long since returned to the civilian realm, she’s now the headmistress at a school, as well as a people’s deputy on the city council. Between her current roles and her status as a decorated war hero, she’s a figure of some importance in her town, and her life is one of constant busyness — but not one of excitement or meaning. She admits that when she sits down to write to her friends in Moscow, she can’t even come up with anything worth putting in a letter. “Seems like I’m always running around, but it’s all for nothing,” she says. “There’s no pleasure in it for me or for anyone else.”
Although her lifetime of public service has acquainted her with countless people she wouldn’t have met otherwise, it’s had a negative impact on the relationship that matters most to her: that with her adopted daughter, Tanya (Zhanna Bolotova). Nadya chose to adopt a girl instead of a boy because she thought she would be closer to a daughter than to a son, but things haven’t turned out as she imagined they would. Tanya, a university student majoring in math, recently married a man named Igor (Vladimir Gorelov), and Nadya is deeply hurt that she hasn’t been invited over yet to meet him and see their apartment. Callous though that makes Tanya seem, it is suggested that Nadya and her heavy schedule must bear at least some of the blame for their strained relations. “By the way, Tanya called. She asked me to say hello to you for her,” Nadya’s friend Pasha (Panteleimon Krymov) tells her, then adds, by way of explanation, “It’s just that you’re never home.” Nadya, trying to hide her pain, says, “By the way, when Tanya calls you again, give her my regards.”
She and Tanya finally have a confrontation one day when she comes home and finds the girl in her apartment, dropping off a tape that someone sent her. Nadya has just been out searching for Sergei Vostriakov (Sergei Nikonenko), a student who ran away after she expelled him for fighting — a waste of time, in Tanya’s opinion. As far as she’s concerned, her mother should get married, start a new life and “let someone else worry about those brats.” Though she’s trying to be helpful, her attitude, indicative of the generation gap between them, appalls Nadya: “This is how you think? I never even knew such words as these. ‘Let someone else do it.’ All my life, I worked for myself and for other people — wherever I was needed, no picking and choosing. For myself and for other people. And I never regretted it.” That may sound good and noble, but as her later confession about “running around, but it’s all for nothing” reveals, it’s not entirely true.
One problem for Nadya is that she isn’t always adept at dealing with people. For example, she shows up uninvited at Tanya and Igor’s apartment while the couple is having visitors over, and she insists on guessing which man is her new son-in-law — incorrectly, as she discovers only after she shakes hands with somebody else and says, “Well, finally. Very nice to meet you.” She grills the real Igor about his career and his previous marriage; she asks Tanya if she’s embarrassed because Igor is old enough to be her father; she brings up the fact that she chairs a panel of judges, prompting Tanya to change the subject; and her awkward presence nearly drives all of the couple’s friends away prematurely. It’s sometimes difficult for her to communicate with her students too, which can be seen when Vostriakov returns to the school and delivers a rehearsed apology to her. Nadya refuses to believe it, mentions the boy’s criminal brother, currently in prison, and then, smiling, asks why he’s so arrogant. “I despise you,” he replies. Vostriakov is a special case, but it’s not surprising that Nadya, who certainly means well, is disheartened about her work in general when her efforts to help a troubled young man merely turn him against her. (She also finds a large, unflattering caricature of herself on a wall, the work of some of her other students, so Vostriakov isn’t the only one who’s not overly fond of her.)
For the most part, though, Nadya appears to be well-liked: old acquaintances are happy to see her, her students are excited when she appears on television. Still, there seems to be something fundamentally solitary in her nature. It’s suggested in the very first scene, in which she’s isolated in the tailor’s shop while swarms of people go by outside, and the impression grows stronger as the film proceeds; on a packed bus, for instance, all of the other passengers turn to look at a dog while she continues to stare straight ahead, separate from the crowd surrounding her. “I’ve noticed you for a while. You pass by, morning and evening, and you’re always alone,” says a woman (Rimma Markova) whose cafe Nadya visits. The two share a few fleeting moments of human connection, talking about their lives and even waltzing playfully together (which draws a considerable number of men to the cafe’s windows), before Nadya resumes her lonely wanderings.
This side of Nadya further explains why her time as a pilot was the high point of her life, for reasons beyond the sheer thrills involved. Not only did it allow her to serve her country at a moment of crisis, but flying a plane by herself, all alone in the cockpit, must have suited her tendency toward solitude in the best possible way, giving her a joyous freedom that she simply couldn’t attain while earthbound. It was also during this period that she experienced what may well have been her deepest, most meaningful relationship ever, with fellow pilot Dmitry Grachev (Leonid Dyachkov), called Mitya. A flashback to their time together is shot from Nadya’s point of view, imbuing it with a striking air of intimacy; although her own face remains unseen, her voice is heard, and her affection for him is palpable. (Similarly, a first person perspective is used when she looks up at the sky and remembers soaring through it.) Later on, Nadya is shown during a flashback to Mitya’s death in battle, as if there’s a disconnect for her — as if her life since that point has been less vivid, less personal, an existence carried out by someone other than the lighthearted, lovestruck young woman heard earlier.
Two decades on, her wartime experiences have become a local museum exhibit, and Nadya herself is practically a living relic, “a tired, modestly dressed woman with lines around her young eyes,” as a youthful journalist (Olga Gobzeva) describes her in an article. Despite working nonstop for the improvement of her community, her own life is in stasis. Her sense of nothing coming to fruition is symbolized by scenes she witnesses while she walks around town: a boy does handstands on a diving platform but never jumps; a group of firefighters runs by with hoses, but it’s only a practice exercise. The fact that she’s a woman puts her in something of an odd spot as well: powerful and respected as she is, she’s told at one point that she can’t enter a restaurant after six o’clock because she doesn’t have an escort. Above all, the world has changed since her glory days in the war, and her personality and conflicting desires — to serve others, to find love and companionship, to be free — make her position there an uneasy one at best.
Wings was the first film that Ukrainian-born Larisa Shepitko directed after her graduation from the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography. Her promising career would prove short-lived: In 1979, two years after her movie The Ascent won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, she and four crew members from her next project, The Farewell, died in a car accident. She was forty-one years old. Shepitko was only twenty-eight when Wings was released, closer in age to Tanya than to Nadya, yet the film is a sensitive, insightful portrait of a middle-aged woman who — in spite of all of her civic involvement — can no longer find her place in the world. Perhaps the only place where Nadya truly belongs is the sky.
“Even Greater Heights.” Liner Notes. The Ascent. The Criterion Collection, 2008.
“Taking Off.” Liner Notes. Wings. The Criterion Collection, 2008.
This post is part of the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.