‘The Ascent’ is said to be one of the finest war films ever made- A bleak and harrowing masterpiece of genuine gut-wrenching power. It is a story of survival, sacrifice and betrayal that captures the fragility, ugliness and greatness of man. It is rare for a film to genuinely match its vertiginous status yet ‘The Ascent’ not only meets but transcends expectation delivering a searing study of humanity during a period of unimaginable darkness.
The Ascent is a 1977 black-and-white Soviet war film made at Mosfilm and what a wonderful film turned out to be before the tragic car accident in 1979 and the death of Shepitko, and was her last film.
The story is a bleak trek across the frozen Byelorussian landscape during WWII. Set in the small Eastern European country just north of the Ukraine, it details the ravages its people suffered under the German invasion and their perseverance in the face of crisis and tragedy. The two Soviet partisans leave their starving band to get supplies from a nearby farm. The Germans have reached the farm first, so the pair must go on a journey deep into occupied territory, a voyage that will also take them deep into their souls….This is not only a tremendously realistic depiction of the horrors of war but also a compelling study of the human condition. Aesthetically, it is very impressive with a gorgeous and grand cinematography. There are plenty of wide shots of the vast landscapes covered by thick snow and interesting zooming techniques that were quite revolutionary for its time. You can really feel the freezing atmosphere that surrounds the characters, only making their struggle for survival even tougher.
Shepitko demonstrates a great ability to keep the suspense flowing, delivering many powerful and moving moments throughout the film. During the World War, two Soviet partisans go to a Belarusian village in search of food. After taking a farm animal from the collaborationist headman (Sergei Yakovlev), they head back to their unit, but are spotted by a German patrol. Though the two men get away, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) is shot in the leg. Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) has to take him to the nearest shelter, the home of Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova), the mother of three young children. However, they are discovered and captured.
The two men and a sobbing Demchikha are taken to the German camp. Sotnikov is questioned first by the traitor Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn). When he refuses to answer Portnov’s questions, Sotnikov is brutally tortured by members of the Belarusian Auxiliary Police, loyal to the Germans, but gives up no information. However, Rybak is a different story. He tells as much as he thinks the police already know, hoping to live so he can escape later. The headman now suspected of supporting the partisans and a young girl are imprisoned in the same cellar for the night.
The next morning, all are led out to be hanged. Rybak persuades Portnov and the Germans to let him join the police. The others are executed. As he heads back to the camp with his new comrades, Rybak is vilified by the villagers. Finally realizing what he has done, he tries to hang himself with his belt in the outhouse, but the belt becomes unfastened. He ties it more securely, but cannot summon the courage to go through with it a second time. Exiting the outhouse, he sees the door to the camp open, but breaks down in tears as he realizes he does not dare to try to escape.
Between the characters- Sotnikov and Rybak are very different people and their discussions were quite thought-provoking to see. While one has strong principles and is not afraid of death, the other is more desperate and might do anything to survive. Rybak is a supportive and trustworthy companion who doesn’t abandon his partner when facing life threatening situations, but he just can’t stand the idea of dying in vain. It was very intriguing seeing his constant struggle when offered a terrible way out of his grim fate. The final sequences are extremely nerve shattering, making the journey even more harrowing to the audience.
The Ascent’ could be seen as a rather rebellious film and also give the slice of Biblical mention. This completely surprises me how Russian filmmakers were able to slide their messages past the Communist censors. On one level, The Ascent affirms the struggle of the public against a corrupt world, but like Eisenstein’s historical epics (Battleship Potemkin), what might appear to be pro-Soviet rhetoric could also be read as a subtle indictment of the same. Replace the Nazis with Stalinist agents, and the message against collaboration with one’s enemy is not nearly as “Red” as the first blush would suggest.
The struggle of the two men to survive and the journey they undertake also reminds me of the work of Andrzej Wajda. Like Wajda- the character of Larisa Shepitko’s is interested in how these extreme situations of war affect the individual. The camera is relentlessly searching for the humanity in her characters, regardless of how vile they may be. Even Portnov gets a couple of her many lingering close-ups, silently contemplating his actions, framed only by his conscience. The characters are obviously more important to her than the action of a typical war picture. The one full-on fight is shown at the beginning of the movie, obscured by the opening credits, whereas there is nothing to get in the way in the final scenes, as each of the condemned gets one last look into the lens. Shepitko shows them as standing strong, neither breaking down nor even flinching. That fate is saved for the pathetic Rybak, whose final cries of anguish end the film, sounding as sad and useless as everything else he has done up until that point.
The Ascent became an international sensation when it was released, winning the Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival. Sadly, it was to be Larisa Shepitko’s last completed project. Though it wasn’t intended to be her final cinematic statement, The Ascent stands tall as such. The impact you will feel as the movie closes won’t fade anytime soon, a testament to the incisive eye of a gifted filmmaker and her own testament to the capacity of the individual to persevere and striking simplicity and a thousand more words will never capture this raw and enduring power. Exquisite & masterful
- Directed by Larisa Shepitko
- Based on the novel ‘Sotnikov’ and Written by Vasil Bykov; Yuri Klepikov & Larisa Shepitko
- Casting: Boris Plotnikov; Vladimir Gostyukhin; Sergei Yakovlev; Lyudmila Polyakova and Anatoli Solonitsyn
- Music by Alfred Schnittke
- Cinematography by Vladimir Chukhnov and Pavel Lebeshev
- Release dates: 2 April 1977
- Run time of 111 minutes
- Country : Soviet Union
- Language: Russian