The breathless immediacy of Voskhozhdeniye (The Ascent, Larisa Shepitko, 1977), adapted from a novella by Vasily Bykov about two Belarusian partisans during World War II, combines with a profound understanding of human vulnerability to make the film, Shepitko’s last, a masterpiece of war cinema.
Shot almost entirely outdoors at the height of the Russian winter, The Ascent opens with long shots of a blizzard-battered world, broken only by sketchbook outlines of village roofs and tilted telegraph poles – a direct quotation from Zemlya (Earth, 1930), directed by Shepitko’s mentor and fellow Ukrainian filmmaker Aleksandr Dovzhenko, who punctuated undulating wheatfields with a similar row of off-kilter poles. The Ascent’s world, however, is not bounty but desolation, “a minimalist study in white on white,” as Jane Costlow aptly describes the film’s cinematography.1 When human beings finally appear in the black-and-white winterscape, it jolts the eye and quickens the heart.
An urgent handheld camera takes over as partisans and villagers fleeing from Nazis emerge from folds in the snow banks to take cover in a nearby wood. Exhausted, wounded, starving, frost-covered and out of ammunition, they send out roughened soldier Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and pale former teacher Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) to secure supplies from the nearest farm. We think we know these men, can predict their fates, one in a warm shearling hat and high leather boots, the other in army-issue infantry cap and woolen shoes. As their mission is stymied in episode after episode, they face the kind of desperate decisions a humane world would never require but that war demands as a constant. Soon, the soldier’s and the teacher’s fates are oddly reversed.
“We deliberately tried to approximate these conditions to the ones which our characters had to endure,” Shepitko later said of the production’s location shoot in sub-zero temperatures in and around the ancient city of Murom. To prepare the story, she pored over hours of newsreel footage and audio recordings of Belarusian survivors. “The annals of the war made us realize that our most horrible ideas of what it was like … paled before the inhuman realities. With the years, our memory spares our nerves and blunts our pain. We have tried not only to understand the pain, but to relive it.”2 Shepitko, who was just old enough to remember the war’s horrible lingering end, succeeds in conveying not just the physical wreckage but also the assaults that wreck the soul. She does this nowhere better than in the pivotal farmhouse sequence.
Rybak and Sotnikov, who is bleeding, stumble upon a long-sought refuge only to realise that there are three unattended children inside. There’s barely time to properly dress the wound, never mind get provisions and move on, when the mother (Lyudmila Polyakova, in a bravura performance) returns home, suppressing furious panic at this awful choice she must make, with Nazis already spilling out of a vehicle at the fence line. By now, Sotnikov is resigned to die, has in fact already tried to, out in the icy field, his bare toe on the rifle trigger a welcome alternative to capture by Nazis. Hidden now in the hayloft, he awaits a machine-gunning – prefers it, in fact, to causing anyone else such anguish. But Rybak decides for them both, as he so often does throughout The Ascent, and bellows his cri de coeur directly at the camera like an Eisensteinian type. His fitness for survival, his will to live, that has so far been an advantage, has become a great flaw; and, by the end of the film, the strong man has become weak, and the weak, strong. Shepitko eventually completes the biblical metaphor by turning the gaunt Sotnikov into a beatified Jesus and Rybak into a remorseful Judas Iscariot. While you cannot miss it, she accomplishes this feat by using such restraint – and by always grounding it in the physical realm – that it exerts an incredible power no matter your beliefs.
The Germans, perpetrators of this whole horror, are barely present in the film, a distant, often smirking devil whose evil is largely carried out close-hand by Belarusians themselves – a subtle reminder that wickedness requires willing footmen to succeed. The ascent of the title refers to one man’s martyrdom, but the film is a Garden of Gethsemane for an array of other characters: the reluctant collaborator, the mother who only wants to save her children, the young Jewish girl who wants to save everyone, all negotiating the same temptation.
In audio interviews from the short documentary Larisa (1980) – made by her husband, the director Elem Klimov, after Shepitko’s death on location in 1979 – she speaks an artist’s manifesto that sounds like Sotnikov, yet recognises the Rybak inside us all, wanting to go on:
To declare them is one thing … every day, every second prompts us to a practical necessity to make a compromise to manoeuvre, keep silent sometimes, make a concession in hopes of making up for it later … ‘I’ll say what they want there, I’ll try to please them here, and avoid saying it there, here I’ll tell only a half-truth, there I’ll hush it up altogether. But in my next film I’ll make up for it, I’ll tell everything I want, in full measure as a creative person should, as an artist, as a citizen. I’ll tell it all.’ It’s a lie. It’s impossible. It’s hopeless to deceive yourself by this illusion. If you stumble once you’ll forget the way there.
If Shepitko had lived, she’d be 81 this year and could still be having a career. She could have finished the film Klimov directed in her stead, Proshchanie (Farewell, 1983), and have even directed her version of Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985), which Klimov turned into his own harrowing war-themed masterpiece from an idea of hers. At the time of her death, just 41 years old, Soviet control probably felt infinite, and while The Ascent is a remarkable final word, it’s tantalising to think what a maturing Shepitko might have done to further test the durability of her manifesto.
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Voskhozhdeniye (The Ascent, 1977 USSR 111 mins)
Prod Co: Mosfilm Dir: Larisa Shepitko Scr: Yuri Klepikov, Larisa Shepitko Phot: Vladimir Chukhnov, Pavel Lebeshev Prod Des: Yuriy Raksha Ed: Valeriya Belova Mus: Alfred Schnitke
Cast: Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin, Lyudmila Polyakova, Sergei Yakovlev, Nikolai Sektimenko, Viktoriya Goldentul, and Anatoliy Solonitsyn
- Jane Costlow, “Icons, Landscape and the Boundaries of Good and Evil: Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977)” in Border Visions: Identity and Diaspora in Film, Jakub Kazecki, Karen A. Ritzenhoff & Cynthia J. Miller, eds. (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013), p. 76. ↩
- Larisa Shepitko, quoted in “Director Larisa Shepitko and Her New Film The Ascent,” Soviet Film 4 (1977), p. 8, cited in Peter Wilshire, “A Harrowing Exploration of War and the Meaning of Human Existence: The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye, Larisa Shepitko, 1977), Offscreen 20:3 (March 2016), https://offscreen.com/view/war-the-meaning-of-human-existence-the-ascent – fn-40-a ↩