The Ascent (1977)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Larisa Shepitko
Run Time
1 hour and 51 minutes
Not Rated

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

I have seen the wicked oppressing and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.

Psalm 37:5
Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

Matthew 16:24-26 (The Message)
This is a powerful character study of how 2 soldiers face death. (c) The Criterion Channel)

Ukrainian filmmaker Larisa Shepitko only made four films before her untimely death in 1979 at the age of 41 in an auto accident while working on what would have been her fifth. Yet had she made only this one, a war film with religious allegory at its heart, this would still ensure her place among the greats of cinema. I came across this crisp Black and White film on YouTube intending to watch just a couple of minutes to see what it is like. I was immediately so captivated that I stayed with the film, even though it meant abandoning plans for the evening. I believe you will be drawn into it in a similar way.

Co-writer as well as director, Ms. Shepitko adapted the film from a novella by Russian writer Vasily Bykov. While the opening credits roll, a fire fight between a group of Russian Partisans, accompanied by villagers, and a pursuing German patrol unfolds. It is winter in the Byelorussian woods with movement difficult through the deep covering of snow. (And the snow is not fake nor is the cloudy breath of the actors—the filming was an ordeal for all, with the temperature at below -40 F.)

After outrunning the Nazis while losing several dead and many wounded, the Partisan leader calls a halt. They share their meager food supply, one small handful of grains per person. The commander orders veteran soldier Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) to go on a search for food. Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov), a former school teacher, is to accompany him. They trudge through the snow, so deep that Rybak tells his lagging companion to walk in his footprints, that it will make it easier for him. They discover that the farm they sought has been burned down, so rather than turn back empty-handed, they press on, arriving at the farm of the village elder (Sergei Yakovlev), a collaborator with the enemy. To the pleas of his fearful wife Rybak forces the traitor outside, but this is not to shoot him, but to secure one of his sheep for their starving comrades.

The two head back for their unit, the stronger Rybak carrying the dead sheep on his shoulders. However, they are spotted by a German patrol. They kill one of the Germans, but Sotnikov is wounded in the leg. Rybak drags his companion through the deep snow, this sequence, shot in close-ups, seeming to go on and on—and making us feel that we are there with them in their prolonged struggle. Time after time, Rybak supports the weaker Sotnikov, physically and by words of encouragement, as they toil against the deep snow and cold wind.

They manage to escape and find shelter in a home where they find three young children huddling. Their mother Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova) returns, very upset by their presence. Nonetheless, she hides them in her loft, but the asthmatic Sotnikov coughs, giving them away.

The protesting mother is taken away along with the two partisans, leaving the young children to a dire fate. At the police station Russian collaborator Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn) interrogates Sotnikov. The latter refuses to divulge information, even when a red hot branding iron is pressed against his chest. Sotnikov’s silent endurance and refusal to divulge even his name is clearly unsettling to the turncoat.

Rybak, on the other hand when facing his cold-eyed interrogator, immediately gives over information that he thinks the Nazis already have. In their dark basement cell Rybak tells his comrade they must coordinate their stories and that they should accept Portnov’s offer of a position in the police force if they cooperate. Sotnikov refuses, speaking about having a conscience that is clear. Whereas Rybak is focused on survival, his companion has accept their obvious fate and wants to end his life in the best way possible.

In these imprisonment scenes the filmmaker shows numerous close-ups of Sotnikov’s face, illuminated so that we see him as a saint, much like the lighting of Joan of Arc’s face in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. The viewer does not have to be a believer to recognize that in Sotnikov we see Jesus Christ; in Rybak Judas; and in Portnov Pontius Pilate. This identification certainly occurred to the Soviet censors when the script was submitted for approval, and at first was cause for them resisting it. Later on, the finished film was rejected for release, and would have been locked away but for a prominent Soviet official who at an advanced screening so praised the film that the censors’ objections were set aside.

The two partisans are joined by the village elder and a young girl Basya (Viktoriya Goldentul),  a Jew who had been hidden by a sympathetic villager. The elder has cooperated with the Nazis for more than just a selfish motive of survival, and Basya has withstood her captors’ efforts to force her to reveal who had hidden her. Thus, only Rybak is unprepared to die. At the last moment he begs that Portnov allow him to accept the offer to join the traitorous police force.

The religious allegory continues, with the doomed party marching up a Soviet version of Calvary, at the top of which a gallows awaits them. As the villagers watch the procession, a sled slides down the hill into the path. A moment later a lad rushes down to  retrieve it. He follows the villagers trudging up the hill. Joining the throng of silent witnesses, the boys face is seen in close-up, as is that of Sotnikov. That their exchange of glances is meaningful we see in the tear that forms in the boy’s face and slowly runs down his cheek. We sense that for Sotnikov his death is redemptive, his resistance to evil now living on in the young onlooker. From the way Portnov reacts to the execution we assume that he too knows his victim has triumphed, if not physically, then certainly spiritually. Rybak, on the other hand, is so overcome with despair that he attempts to emulate Judas. What happens to him I leave for you to decide.

This is one of the most artfully shot black and white films (two cinemaphotographers are listed, Vladimir Chukhnov and Pavel Lebeshev)  that I have seen, equaling that of The Passion of Joan of Arc. I don’t know whether or not Larisa Shepitko was a believer, brought up as she was in an atheistic society, but she uses religious allegory in a powerful way in this character study of two men facing death in very different ways.  She and her cowriter sums up things perfectly in this exchange between the two men while captive in a cellar:

Sotnikov[Sotnikov and Rybak are arguing whether to speak with Germans or not] We’re soldiers. Soldiers. Don’t crawl in shit. You’ll never wash it off.

Rybak: So then, to the grave – to feed the worms. Right?

Sotnikov: That’s not the worst that could happen. No. That’s not what I’m talking about. Now I understand. I understand. The important thing is to be true to yourself.

Rybak: Fool! You’re a fool, Sotnikov. You graduated from the institute for nothing. I want to live! To live! To kill those bastards! Understand? I’m the soldier. And you’re a corpse. All you’ve got left is your stubbornness – your principles!

Sotnikov: Then go, go on living – without a conscience. It can be done.

Now I realize what a loss to world cinema her untimely death was. Fortunately, a quick search in YouTube reveals that some of her other films are also available. You can count on that I will be reporting on  them in the near future.

This review will be in the June issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.

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