Facing Death, Confronting Human Nature: The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)
Larisa Shepitko’s black-and-white feature film Voskhozhdeniye (The Ascent, 1977) is based on the 1970 novella Sotnikov by the Belarussian writer Vasil Bykov. Set in Nazi-occupied Belarus during World War II, The Ascent follows two Soviet partisans who brave harsh winter landscapes in search of food to sustain their fellow escapees. The soldiers’ perilous journey, however, leads to a series of fateful encounters, including their capture, interrogation, and torture by Nazi soldiers and collaborators. As the narrative unfolds, complex moral and existential dilemmas arise. The young and sickly Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and the physically stronger, experienced soldier Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) are ultimately forced to choose between life and death, as survival will only become possible by betrayal. While Shepitko focuses on the extreme physical and psychological experiences of war, the film raises questions that interrogate human nature more broadly.
The Ascent marks the highpoint of the Ukrainian-born filmmaker’s career, securing her critical acclaim both in the Soviet Union and abroad. Despite limited distribution in Soviet cinemas, the film was positively reviewed in major Soviet film magazines and was generally well received by state officials.1 Moreover, The Ascent won the Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin International Film Festival, after which Shepitko showed the work at film festivals in Telluride and Toronto, and even returned to the Berlinale in 1978 as a member of the international jury.2
Even though The Ascent and Shepitko’s other masterly films have since been praised by critics and scholars in both the East and the West, they remain far less known and exhibited than those of her contemporaries at the VGIK film school in Moscow – Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Parajanov, and her husband Elem Klimov.3 Like many female filmmakers’, Shepitko’s contribution to the history of cinema has often been downplayed or overlooked, but her extraordinary talent and the significance of her work have recently begun to receive greater recognition.4
Writing in 2014, for example, David C. Gillespie, declared The Ascent to be “perhaps the most important war film of the 1970s and one of the key films of the entire Brezhnev period.”5
With Brezhnev’s rise to power in 1964, a long period of cultural stagnation began, defined by a return to strict censorship and creative limitations that had been alleviated under Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev’s Thaw had allowed filmmakers, for the first time, to move away from heroic propaganda narratives about the Great Patriotic War and to explore more personal and unsettling aspects of the war.6 Despite the shifting political and cultural landscape under Brezhnev, which saw for example Yuri Ozerov’s epic five-part war film series Osvobozhdenie (Liberation, 1971), The Ascent aligns itself with this earlier line of investigation into the psychological dimension of personal struggle and suffering in war rather than of its battles. Notably, the only longer combat sequence between Germans and Soviets plays out behind the opening credits.
The Ascent is uncompromising in its representation of the cruel realities of war. When Rybak and Sotnikov find shelter with Demchika (Lyudmila Polyakova), a young mother living with her three children, they are discovered by a German patrol who take them away to their headquarters in another village, leaving the small children behind with almost no hope of survival. Sotnikov is the first to be interrogated by the Russian Nazi collaborator Portnov (Anatoly Solonitsyn) but refuses to answer any questions, even when he is submitted to brutal torture, as a star is burnt on his chest with a red-hot branding iron. Paradoxically, it is Rybak, the stronger and more experienced soldier, who immediately answers all questions in order to save his life, ultimately becoming a police officer in the service of the Nazis. By choosing to depict a potential Soviet hero as a traitor and collaborator, Shepitko ventures into dangerous territory. Alexei German’s Proverka na Dorogakh (Trial on the Roads, 1971) was banned and released only under perestroika in 1987 due to its controversial depiction of a Red Army soldier who became a Nazi collaborator but ultimately died in an act of redeeming heroism.7 As a counterpoint to Rybak, The Ascent casts Sotnikov first as an unlikely hero who turns into a Christ-like figure, sacrificing himself for higher ideals and his motherland.
Shepitko’s film interweaves religious and political elements into its visual and narrative fabric in often unexpected ways. Throughout the film, Christian visual symbols and religious gestures are evoked, but most attention is paid to the transformation of Sotnikov, whose expression and demeanour change radically, along with the increasingly dramatic lighting and framing of his figure, lending him a nearly divine aura. This heavenly light even illuminates the dark cellar where the detainees – Sotnikov, Rybak, Demchika, a village elder and a young Jewish girl who refused to denounce the person who was hiding her – await punishment. As one of the partisans has shot and killed a German soldier, all of the prisoners are condemned to be executed. Although he had previously withheld all information, Sotnikov decides to take on all responsibility to save the others. When Portnov dismisses his plea, addressing him by the false name the partisan used during the interrogation, Sotnikov retorts:
No. Not Ivanov. My name’s Sotnikov. Commander, Red Army. Born in 1917. Bolshevik. A Party member since 1935. Teacher by profession. At the start of the war, I commanded a battery.It’s a shame I didn’t kill more of you bastards. My name is Sotnikov – Boris Andreevich. I have a father, a mother and a motherland.
In this pivotal moment, Sotnikov’s defiant disclosure of identity is a decidedly political act of resistance, displaying loyalty to his Bolshevik ideals and homeland, which is somewhat at odds with his Christ-like role. On the other hand, Rybak breaks under the pressure and joins the side of the occupiers, accompanying his former companion in the punitive procession ascending a Golgotha-like hill, on top of which are improvised gallows. As Rybak kneels, holding onto the log on which Sotnikov stands before being hanged, the camera cuts between close-ups of the face of Sotnikov and of a small boy wearing an old budenovka, a Communist army hat.8 As a tear falls down the boy’s face, their powerful exchange of gazes is emphasised by Alfred Schnittke’s dramatic musical score. They both smile faintly before Sotnikov’s death, suggesting a deeper meaning of this act of martyrdom for the new generation.
Yet the film does not end with this climactic scene, since it is interested in conveying the moral implications and suffering Rybak endures as he realises the unbearable burden of his treason and complicity in murder. After a village woman hisses “Judas” at him, he fails to commit suicide, only to fall on his knees in agony in the courtyard of the police headquarters. The critic Elena Stishova has remarked that “the film ‘states’ Sotnikov, but ‘investigates’ Rybak,” arguing for a nuanced understanding of his position and the complexity of a character who could otherwise simply be dismissed as a traitor.9
Shepitko offered an explanation for her Christ and Judas parable of betrayal, saying that “there have always been Sotnikovs and Rybaks, just as there were Jesus and Judas. I am not religious, but since this legend is so prevalent in the world it means that it’s alive, that it lives on inside each of us.”10 Not only does this view help illuminate the seeming discrepancy between Soviet communist and Christian values, it also foregrounds Shepitko’s insistence on the universal importance of moral integrity in the face of evil. Here, the influence of Fyodor Dostoyevsky on Shepitko’s work becomes evident, as voiced elsewhere by the filmmaker herself as well as by critics and scholars. 11 The Ascent thus both profoundly engages with and transcends its historical subject and the post-Stalinist context of its production, strongly denouncing war and abuses of power.
In an article exploring the relationship between photography and war, Susan Sontag asks whether an image or a series of images can have the power to mobilise opposition to war. 12 She argues that “a narrative seems likely to be more effective than an image,” partly due to the “length of time one is obliged to look, and to feel.”13 Sontag continues: “No photograph, or portfolio of photographs, can unfold, go further, and further still, as does The Ascent […], the most affecting film about the horror of war I know.”14 Indeed, each shot in Shepitko’s film forces the viewer to continue looking and experiencing the suffering of the protagonists. Vladimir Chukhnov’s camera follows the characters intimately, frequently using close-ups and unusual framing, focusing “on the human face as a terrain to be explored.”15 More detached views are juxtaposed with expressive point-of-view shots, letting the viewer imagine how it would feel to be there – nearly left to die in a frozen forest or facing the barrel of a gun while hiding behind a few straws of hay.
Furthermore, The Ascent emphasises a visceral engagement with the natural world, with close-ups of figures covered in snow and ice and shots of brittle tree branches coated in crystalline frost. These elements heighten the physicality of experience in moments of heightened emotional tension. For example, after Sotnikov has been shot in the leg by a Nazi patrol and attempts to commit suicide in order to avoid capture, Rybak courageously drags his body into hiding through the heavy snow. During this long sequence, one can feel the heaviness of the wounded, snow-covered body, the difficulty of the bare struggle for survival.
The hostile natural setting is not a mere backdrop to the film’s action. From its opening images, the viewer is immersed in the blinding whiteness of vast snowfields. In a series of establishing shots depicting the winter landscape, a dense snow haze saturates the air, reducing the visibility of the terrain, electricity poles, and a village church. Howling winds, interspersed with machine gun fire and distant shouts establish an atmosphere of hostility and fear, which foreshadows the desperate attempts of the occupied people to escape Nazi persecution. When the two partisans traverse the winter landscape, their figures are juxtaposed with the vast expanse of the snow. At times, its whiteness even seems to partially dissolve the image in reducing the cinematic space to a white flat surface where frail human figures are at the mercy of the elements, occupying a space of liminality.16 The film’s final images take the viewer back to the opening sequence, to the same long shots of electricity poles, of a church, of the almost unbearable whiteness of the snow. As snowfall and strong winds continually efface human traces in the snow, what are the marks of human existence that can not be erased?
The Ascent would unfortunately become Shepitko’s last completed film. She was tragically killed in a car accident in 1979 at age 41, along with cinematographer Chukhnov, production designer Yuri Fomenko, and three other film crew members.17 This tragic event occurred while they were location scouting for Shepitko’s next project, based on Valetin Rasputin’s 1976 novel Proshchaniye s Matyoroy (Farewell to Matyora), an elegiac story about villagers faced with the imminent destruction of their community due to the construction of a new hydroelectric dam. Shepitko’s husband Klimov created Larisa (1980), a short film in her memory, combining visual archival material – photographs, fragments of Shepitko’s films, and shots from the unfinished project – with recordings of Shepitko’s voice and interviews with her colleagues. In this cinematic tribute to Shepitko, Klimov praises The Ascent as her ultimate achievement.
He also set himself the task of completing Shepitko’s last project, imbuing the resulting film Proshchaniye (Farewell, 1981) with an acute sense of mourning and loss. 18 In his arguably best-known and widely praised film Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985), Klimov returns to the subject and site of Shepitko’s The Ascent, addressing the Nazi occupation of Belarus. Yet their cinematic visions are strikingly different. Klimov’s haunting color film, conveyed from the perspective of a teenage boy who joins Soviet partisans and becomes a witness to Nazi atrocities, is characterised by an emphasis on the raw brutality of the horrors of war, whereas Shepitko’s psychological and spiritual exploration offers a more transcendent vision of suffering and death. As such, The Ascent leaves an important trace on Soviet cinema and marks a significant contribution to the history of film.
- Jason Merill. “Religion, Politics, and Literature in Larisa Shepit’ko’s The Ascent”, Slovo 18:2 (2006): 153. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Michael Koresky, “Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko”, The Criterion Collection, 2008, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/507-eclipse-series-11-larisa-shepitko. ↩
- While it is beyond the scope of this article to offer an in-depth exploration of Shepitko’s status as a female filmmaker and to address issues of gender in her work, this subject deserves further investigation. Discussions of her “masculinity” or “femininity” frequently appear in her interviews and accounts of her colleagues, as well as in criticism about her work. See, for example Elem Klimov (ed.), Larisa: Kniga o Larise Shepitko (Moscow: Isskustvo, 1987). ↩
- David C. Gillespie, Russian Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 138-39. ↩
- Such films include Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957), Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballada o soldate (The Ballad of a Soldier, 1959), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962). Denise J. Youngblood, “Post-Stalinist Cinema and The Myth of World War II: Tarkovskii’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) And Klimov’s Come And See’ (1985)”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 14:4 (1994): 414. ↩
- Gillespie, p. 138 ↩
- Merrill, p. 160. ↩
- Elena Stishova, “Khronika i legenda” (1977), in Elem Klimov (ed.), Larisa: Kniga o Larise Shepit’ko (Moscow: Isskustvo, 1987), p. 171 (Translation by Masha Shpolberg). ↩
- Larisa Shepitko, “Kogda my ne naprasny …”, in Elem Klimov (ed.), Larisa: Kniga o Larise Shepit’ko (Moscow: Isskustvo, 1987), p. 171 (Translation by Masha Shpolberg). ↩
- See, for example, Merrill, pp. 156-160. ↩
- Susan Sontag, “Looking at War”, The New Yorker, 2002, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/ 12/09/looking-at-war. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- William Guynn, Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), p. 125. ↩
- The Ascent was not the first film that Shepitko shot in extreme conditions, pushing herself, her actors and her crew to their physical limits. Her graduation film Znoy (Heat, 1963), for instance, was shot in the steppes of Kirghizia, in such heat that even the film stock was melting. In Shepitko’s first feature film Krylya (Wings, 1966), the main character is unfulfilled in her post-war existence as a schoolmistress and looks back longingly to her former life as a Soviet fighter pilot, navigating the vastness of the sky. Barbara Quart, “Between Materialism and Mysticism: The Films of Larissa Shepitko,” Cinéaste 16:3 (1988): 7. ↩
- Peter Wilshire, “A Harrowing Exploration of War and the Meaning of Human Existence: The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye, Larisa Shepitko, 1977),” Offscreen 20:3 (2016), http://offscreen.com/view/war-the-meaning-of-human-existence-the-ascent. ↩
- John Wrathall, “Excursion to Hell,” Sight and Sound 14:2 (2004): 28. ↩