Director: Larisa Shepitko
Country: Soviet Union
With just four feature films between her graduation from the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography and her tragic death in a car accident in 1979, Larisa Shepitko established herself as one of the Soviet Union’s finest filmmakers. Her 1966 work Wings is a remarkable display of her then-emerging talent, channeling the creative spirit of the European arthouse cinema of the time in its portrait of a school principal who yearns for her previous life as a World War II ace pilot. The Ascent, however, is something else entirely: a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Though it is ingrained with the sort of sublime transcendence that can be found in the works of Bergman, Dreyer and Tarkovsky, the experience it offers is so singular, pure and powerful that it belongs entirely in a class of its own.
The Ascent, set during World War II, begins with a troop of Byelorussian soldiers who, following a chaotic attack, send two men into the wintery wilderness to a nearby farm to find food. They find the building’s burnt remains, then continue onwards before eventually crossing paths with a German patrol. One of the men, Sotnikov, is shot in the leg. Rybak, his companion, pulls him to safety, and the two soldiers find refuge in a nearby house inhabited by a peasant woman and her three children. But soon enough, another group of Germans arrives and discovers them hiding in the attic, taking them and the woman prisoner. The captives are held in a Nazi camp where they slowly realize just how dire their situation is.
Much of The Ascent possesses an intense quality that vividly depicts the sheer brutality of the soldiers’ experiences. The camera is with them for nearly every step of their journey from the moment they leave their troop, capturing their exhausted breaths and strenuous efforts to stay alive. You can feel all too clearly Sotnikov’s terror and desperation as he clumsily aims and reloads his rifle, then hopelessness when he tells Rybak to leave him to die against the base of a tree. Surely never before has snow been portrayed as such an immobilizing, claustrophobically enveloping substance, particularly when Rybak drags both himself and the wounded Sotnikov away from the Germans, their clothes and faces caked with the freezing substance.
Viewers are propelled forward alongside the men in a linear, constantly shifting stream of events, with moments of fragile shelter and peace all too quickly giving way to exposure in the blinding wasteland, frantic confrontations and harrowing captivity. One of The Ascent’s most incredible features is its striking use of Christian symbolism, which becomes more apparent as the film progresses. When questioned and tortured for information, the Christ-like Sotnikov fiercely refuses to tarnish his honor, selflessly accepting his fate with a clean conscience and, as a result, achieving a sort of enlightenment. In contrast, Rybak pitifully stoops to the lowest depths of morality to ensure his own survival. Perhaps the film’s only weak point is when an old woman calls him Judas (twice!), as it brings into the open what was already so poignantly implied by Vladimir Gostyukhin’s portrayal of the sniveling coward, the no-win dilemma set before the two men and their different, heartbreaking responses to it.
The engineer of their painful situation and the evil beating heart at the center of Shepitko’s film is Portnov, the Russian police investigator in league with the Germans who interrogates Sotnikov and Rybak. He is played by Anatoli Solonitsyn, the distinctive actor who appeared in many of Tarkovsky’s films, including Andrei Rublev as the title character, Solaris and Stalker. In The Ascent, he gives a performance that is nothing short of hypnotic, seizing the viewer’s attention from the moment he appears standing before Sotnikov’s crumpled form. The following conversation held in his small, sparsely furnished office gradually becomes a battle of wills between the two men. “You’ll have to trouble your conscience,” says Portnov, describing Sotnikov’s only hope for saving himself shortly before resorting to a red-hot iron. With his slightly stooped posture; piercing eyes; round, balding head and small, fierce-looking teeth, he is suitably demonic in both appearance and nature, calm and cool in one moment, menacingly furious the next. A shocking revelation about his previous life before the war and a scene in which he is subtly shut out of a circle of conversation between some German officers rank as some of the more interesting ways in which the film addresses the issue of collaboration. His mesmerizing presence and diabolical control over his subjects bringing to mind Christoph Waltz’s Colonel Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds, Portnov is one of cinema’s greatest unsung villains.
The Ascent is packed with striking, expertly-composed images – a full clothesline swaying amid the barren remains of the farm; a line of crooked telephone poles standing in the alien landscape; the haunting, tired faces of the young and old in both the troop and, later, the group of prisoners shut away in a dark cellar. Further demonstrating her firm control over the medium, Shepitko underlines certain passages with abstract crescendos of sound and music that are often halted by abrupt cuts, bringing the viewer back to reality in an instant. The final passage and tragic epilogue are particularly unforgettable, leaving one stunned by the film’s emotional impact and beauty. It is a fitting sensation to be left with at the very end of not only Shepitko’s greatest accomplishment, but her entire career as well. While it is a great pity that she wasn’t able to continue expanding her body of work, The Ascent serves an unusually proper role as a Final Film, preserving forever the impression of an artist at the height of her creativity.