THE ASCENT (1977)

  • Director: Larisa Shepitko
  • Writers: Yuri Klepikov and Larisa Shepitko, based on the novel Sotnikov by Vasil Bykaŭ
  • Starring: Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin, Lyudmila Polyakova, Viktoriya Goldentul, Anatoli Solonitsyn, and Sergei Yakovlev
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#11), 1977 Berlin International Film Festival – Golden Bear
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel

If you were to list the greatest female directors of the 20th Century, the top few would likely include Agnes Varda, Lina Wertmüller, Chantal Akerman, perhaps Nora Ephron or Penny Marshall (depending on the preferences of whoever was making the list), Leni Riefenstahl (if they were comfortable separating the morality of a work from its form), and Larisa Shepitko. Of these, Shepitko is probably the one the least number of Americans have heard of and/or are familiar with, and she’s also, of that group, the filmmaker best known for a single film. The former is because Shepitko was making movies in the Soviet Union at a time when not a lot culturally made it to the other side of the Iron Curtain. The latter is because Shepitko tragically died in a car accident while scouting locations for her next film in 1979, at the age of 41. Her most famous, and last, movie is The Ascent, a 1977 black-and-white World War II drama that tells an extremely simple story about two Russian soldiers who get captured by the Germans.

I had a few takeaways from The Ascent. One is I have absolutely no idea why it is called that. The Russian title apparently directly translates as Ascension, which… maybe makes very slightly more sense, from a metaphorical point of view, but not much. I honestly thought going in, not just from the title but from a misremembered plot summary I saw somewhere, that it involved soldiers trying to climb a mountain for some reason. It does not. Secondly, it is clear that whatever made Shepitko a great director, which I would say just based on watching this movie that she is, also drove her kind of nuts, and possibly many of the people around her as well. She said that she would not ask the actors to do anything that she wouldn’t do, a situation which came to a head after she came down with Hepatitis and found that she could barely walk. Yet she still insisted on “running alongside the actors,” in the knee-high snow much of this movie takes place in, “to experience their exhaustion and avoid hypocrisy.” She ended up having to direct the end of the movie from a stretcher. Her intensity was legendary, with one of the actors describing her as “Dostoevsky in a skirt.” Which I guess is a compliment, in context?

The novel this movie is based on is more like a novella, I’m told, and like a movie we discussed a few days ago, The Dead, it never really escapes the feeling of not having a full story. It depicts two Soviet partisans fighting the Nazis in Belarus, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin). Exhausted and freezing, they are sent by their commander to a nearby village to search for food. They take a sheep from the village “Headman” (Sergei Yakovlev), but are then happened on by a Nazi patrol. Sotnikov is badly wounded in the ensuing firefight, and Rybak has to drag him away to the nearest shelter. This happens to be a shack where a local woman (Lyudmila Polyakova) lives with her three children. She tries to hide them, but the pair is soon captured by the Nazis, along with the mother. 

Sotnikov is tortured at the German camp but reveals nothing. Rybak tells the Nazis what he thinks they want to hear, and is offered the chance to become a local policeman (enforcing the rule of the Germans) rather than be killed. Sotnikov almost dies in the night, but in the morning gets up enough strength to give a defiant speech. After Rybak desperately gets the attention of his interrogator, who enforces his promise of letting him be a policeman in exchange for his life, he watches as Sotnikov and several others are executed by hanging. In horror, he tries to hang himself in the outhouse with his own belt but fails. He starts crying and laughing hysterically. The end.

So, a barrel of laughs then! That description there, by the way, is a fairly exhaustive list of every event in this movie, yet it clocks in at a full hour and forty minutes. Shepitko often portrays her actors in extended, sometimes wordless, close-ups. She then sometimes breaks these up by switching to show their direct point of view. We show Sotnikov’s face, he has been shot and is in pain. We cut to his view of the forest, sunlight through snow-covered branches. We cut back to him, looking at the forest. Cut back to the forest. He knocks some snow off a branch he can reach. And so on. If this sounds boring, it surprisingly (mostly) is not. Something about what the director and actors are doing here does a remarkably good job of putting us in the headspace of the characters.

The black and white photography, meanwhile, is incredibly stark and beautiful. Most of the movie takes place outdoors, in a place covered in deep snow, with occasional black branches or trees to break up the white. The faces of the actors are frequently caked with snow. This must have been a real bear of a shoot, even outside of Shepitko’s particular techniques. The Wikipedia article for this movie (which reads more like an interesting novel by someone whose first language is not English) says that “some of the crew and experts developed frostbite, but no one complained.” Just gonna throw this out there, but maybe that was because… they were in the Soviet Union, and were worried dissent would be punished?

Shepitko had her own issues with that system, as “MosFilm” had to approve every tiny aspect of her production. Imagine the Hollywood studio system as government bureaucracy, and you start to get the idea. First she had to go to bat for her chosen actors, who were unknowns at the time. Then, once the film was completed, it seemed at first that it would never be approved. Prior Soviet war movies had mostly concentrated on portraying Red Army soldiers as heroes, and Shepitko’s more psychologically nuanced portrayal of wartime desperation was not necessarily the party line. That said, the movie was definitely anti-German, and Sotnikov’s final speech has lines straight from a propaganda poster, like, “I have a mother, and a father, and a motherland!” In the end, Shepitko was able to get a print of her movie into the hands of the head of “MosFilm.” He supposedly broke down in tears watching it and immediately the movie was approved.

The Ascent went on to win the Golden Bear (the award for the best film) at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1977. It was only the second movie directed by a woman to win the top award at any of the Big Three European Film Festivals (Berlin, Venice, Cannes). Shepitko’s next project, another novel adaptation called Farewell to Matyora, was eventually finished by her husband (with the title shortened just to Farewell) and dedicated to her following her death. The actor who plays Sotnikov, Boris Plotnikov, was making his film debut, but carries large stretches of the movie in just close-ups on his face. He went on to appear in about 70 movies, but passed away in December of COVID-19. As for me, I definitely have no desire to ever watch The Ascent again, but at the same time I have no question in my mind that it’s a great work of art that earned its spot, and Shepitko’s, in the film pantheon.

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