THE ASCENT (1977)
Two Russian partisans, captured by the Germans during World War II, must decide whether to collaborate with their foes or face death
Larisa Shepitko’s dour, contemplative, eventually devastating, but also uplifting classic of heroism and betrayal, is nominally a war movie… yet the historical setting of Belarus in 1942, where Russian partisans struggle through a bitter winter against the Nazi occupation forces, isn’t The Ascent’s real subject. As Daniel Bird points out in his commentary on this Criterion Blu-ray reissue, the essential conflict isn’t between Soviets and Germans, but internalised ones between the two protagonists.
Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), members of a partisan group hiding out in the woods, are sent to a nearby village to obtain food. They encounter Germans, however, and Sotnikov is wounded in the ensuing gunfire. Together they manage to evade the enemy and hide out at the home of Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova), but the Germans track them down and this time take them prisoner, along with Demchikha and other civilians.
The collaborationist local police chief Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn) interrogates them, torturing Sotnikov when he refuses to divulge information about the partisans, but sparing the more compliant Rybak, and offers him a choice: be hanged with the others, or switch sides, join the police, and work alongside the Nazi occupiers.
The moral dilemmas, exposed in the interrogation scenes and in a lengthy conversation between the imprisoned Sotnikov and Rybak, go beyond that. Sotnikov, too, has to make a seemingly impossible choice: if he doesn’t give up his comrades, the innocent civilians who sheltered him and Rybak will die. As Portnov says: “you’ll have to burden your conscience. One way or other you’ll have to. There’s no way out.” And Rybak, importantly, isn’t simply a coward; his motivation for joining the enemy isn’t purely to save his skin, but also to live on so he can fight them another day. The situation may look simple, but it isn’t.
Nevertheless, Shepitko’s film is clear which character it supports. The Ascent begins in relatively realistic fashion but progressively takes on a more overtly spiritual atmosphere, until by the end its presentation of Sotnikov is unmistakably Christ-like. Individual shots suggest a crown of thorns, a cross, an empty tomb; the procession to the gallows as the movie approaches its climax is clearly designed to recall Christ’s final trudge to Golgotha; the scene where Portnov interrogates Sotnikov has been compared by several writers to the interrogation of Christ by the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. An old woman even hisses “Judas!” at Rybak.
The director admitted it was a “neo-parable”, and her claim that “it pinpoints the crucial importance of the spiritual fortitude of the Soviet man in the face of the Nazi military machine” was probably more to satisfy sceptical Soviet authorities than a true reflection of her motives in making the movie. With its portrayal of a partisan turning collaborator and what Shepitko’s son describes on this disc as “trying to force Jesus onto the screen”, it was nearly banned, and approved only when her husband Elem Klimov pulled some strings.
For its concerns appear to run much deeper than the specific wartime situation depicted. This is a film about difficult choices and the importance of making them morally rather than giving in to expediency. It’s not, however, a religious essay, despite its obvious Christian metaphor: Shepitko has chosen to portray Sotnikov as Christ to ensure that viewers get the point, to make the symbolism unmistakable.
The Ascent is a film of distinct parts, in terms of style as well as story: the initial adventure of combat and evasion, then the interrogations, then the cell, finally the execution of most of the main characters, and a horrifying brief epilogue. Here, the surviving Rybak is consumed with guilt at having joined the enemy; he tries to hang himself and fails; he looks out through the gate of the German headquarters and sees that the Belarusian countryside beyond, where at the beginning of the movie he was hiding with his fellow partisans and which he was fighting to rid of the invaders, is now forever beyond his reach.
That impassive snowy landscape was the first thing we see in the film, with a series of virtually still shots broken by a man coming into view, followed by others, all in complete silence. Then we hear breathing and clanking metal, followed by the cry “Germans!”, and we’re straight into the story of the partisans’ desperate fight. These sequences in the snow (shot in difficult conditions, as was Shepitko’s 1963 Heat) are disorienting, giving us little sense of direction and largely dispensing with establishing shots or informative setting-up of scenes; we experience the threat and uncertainty of the situation just as the partisans do, as if we’re with them.
The Ascent remains very physical at many points (for example, in Sotnikov and Rybak’s long crawl through the snow), but there’s also a slight unreality to it throughout. An odd sense of time being suspended, perhaps hinting at the timelessness of Shepitko’s underlying theme. Later sequences can be more didactic and less immersive, with the visual style she adopts along with cinematographers Vladimir Chukhnov and Pavel Lebeshev exuding weight and solemnity: very often the frame contains just a single thing (a face, a dog, a fireplace, a boot) as if they’re of great symbolic import. Shepitko’s arrangements of people, too, often have the feeling of tableaux.
It’s fundamentally a film of ideas rather than realistic characters, and much of it’s over-acted by today’s standards, but a few performances do stand out. Notable among them are Gostyukhin as Rybak, in many ways the key to the film, even if it often concentrates more closely on the developing inner strengths of Plotnikov’s Sotnikov, and Solonitsyn as the police chief Portnov. A frequent collaborator with the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (a contemporary of Shepitko, who preceded her by a few years at VGIK, the State Institute for Cinematography), Portnov gives us a complex and nuanced rather than hateful baddie. He’s cold, merciless, scornful, almost vampirish, but he’s also unsure of his position, and rather afraid of the Nazis himself even as he longs for their approval. There are some telling shots at the climactic hangings where he tries to insert himself into a knot of German officers but is completely ignored by them.
Tarkovsky was right that The Ascent isn’t a subtle movie: shots like this, or Sotnikov’s Jesus-face bathed in light, can seem to be underlining the point a little too obviously. (Conversely, though, two sequences where Rybak fantasises about escaping from the Germans are not obviously imaginary at first, and can be briefly confusing.)
However, it has a raw power that makes it impossible to ignore (rather reminiscent of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory in its ultimate emotional wallop), and makes clear how great the loss to Russian cinema was when Shepitko (along with cinematographer Chukhnov and others) died in a car accident only a couple of years after it won the Golden Bear at 1977’s Berlin International Film Festival. David C. Gillespie called it “perhaps the most important war film of the 1970s”, while Susan Sontag described it as “the most affecting film about the horror of war I know.”
Much of that’s down to Shepitko’s mesmerising visual manner, some is down to the fine score by Alfred Schnittke, one of the great classical composers of the Soviet era—chaotic music that ends with a kind of triumphant, if jarring, victoriousness as a trumpet melody wins through. But it’s also, sometimes, down to the simplest of touches—like, for example, a child chasing a runaway sledge who crosses the path of the doomed prisoners marching to their deaths.
In this incident Shepitko juxtaposes brutality and innocence, normality and the disruption of war; and she foreshadows how the apparently hopeless situation of Sotnikov will be transmuted into hope as he stands on the gallows, exchanging looks with a boy in the crowd. There are still good things in the world, even in Nazi-occupied Belarus, and his sacrifice is worthwhile. It’s not a moment one will forget quickly.
USSR | 1977 | 111 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | RUSSIAN • GERMAN • ENGLISH (SUBTITLES)
director: Larisa Shepitko
writer: Yuri Klelpikov & Larisa Shepitko (based on the novella Sotnikov by Vasil Bykaŭ).
starring: Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin & Anatoli Solonitsyn.