The Ascent (1977) dir. Larisa Shepitko
Starring: Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin, Sergei Yokovlev and Anatoli Solonitsin
Guest review by Greg Klymkiw
Survival and sacrifice are at the forefront of Larisa Shepitko’s harrowing World War II drama “The Ascent” – only fitting since the film, at once simple, at the next complex, is ultimately an allegorical portrait of Christ and Judas in a world turned topsy-turvy by the senseless strife and slaughter during the German invasion and occupation of Belarus. That notion of faith, extracted as it is from the New Testament and applied to such issues as love and betrayal of country are completely at home within the context and backdrop so vividly and evocatively portrayed.
For the Ukrainian-born Shepitko, herself a student of Master Ukrainian filmmaker Olexander Dovzhenko, it is clear why this story resonated with her and why she applied such staggering Dovzhenkian compositions to the picture. Coming from Ukraine, a country and culture that had been under the yoke of occupation and suppression almost from its very beginnings and having been mentored by a brilliant filmmaker who himself had been repressed and censored by Joseph Stalin, the mixture of frank political material coupled with a story and central relationship derived from the opiate of the masses, is illustrative of Shepitko’s artistic bravery at such a relatively early stage of her career in the repressive Soviet regime that frowned upon anything that deviated from the State disavowal of all things based in faith.
The story is a simple one. It is also both tragic and compelling. Ultimately, however, it is the simple narrative backbone that allows Shepitko to inspire an audience’s engagement in the proceedings as well as opportunities for contemplation and reflection both during and after seeing the film.
Following a rag-tag band of partisans through the snowy steppes and forest of Belarus, we are introduced to our pair of mismatched protagonists, the hardened, practical Rybak (Vladimir Gostukhin) and the physically weak, but thoughtful Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) as they volunteer to journey through the bitter cold of the dangerous, Nazi-infested region to find food for the tired and starving freedom fighters. The journey begins to take, almost from the beginning, a series of increasingly disastrous and dangerous detours as Sotnikov becomes sicker with bronchitis and a bullet wound while Rybak becomes so intent upon survival that he begins to question all the sacrifices he is enduring. They both find themselves face-to-face with having to make the ultimate sacrifice for each other, those around them and most importantly, home and country.
Given that most of us are more than aware of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, it is also a testament to Shepitko’s cinematic storytelling prowess that we are still gripped by the proceedings in spite of having a good inkling of where the story will go. In fact, it is the inevitability of where things are headed that keeps us glued to the screen – we keep hoping against hope that the inevitable will be circumvented and, of course, Shepitko plays the portent with harrowing assuredness and style.
Interestingly, “The Ascent” is not dissimilar to another great Soviet war picture, Grigori Chukrai’s “Ballad of a Soldier”. On the surface, both pictures deal with soldiers who have a specific goal, but on their journey they face a series of obstacles and detours that painfully keep them from reaching their ultimate destination. The difference, however, is that Chukrai’s film (also full of lush, gorgeously composed exteriors in the Dovzhenkian mold) involves detours routed firmly in sacrifice wherein the central character is kept from visiting his destitute mother because he is continually sidetracked by being duty-bound to helping other people with their own challenges. In “The Ascent”, it is both betrayal and survival that provide the obstacles. This basic difference highlights why one picture feels romantic and the other is overwhelmingly tragic.
That said, “The Ascent” is equally powerful and perhaps even more so since the will to survive – at any cost – becomes so poignant. Sacrifice, which involves principles rather than that of the plight of individuals, takes “The Ascent” into (ironically) political territory that mirrors the struggles of everyone living within the Soviet system. As an audience we are forced to confront a system of repression (Soviet-ruled Belarus) that is also being occupied and repressed by a foreign aggressor (Germany). The enemy is sadly, from within and outside so that our characters are surrounded – almost in futility. The domestic collaborators with the Nazis are at once evil and altogether human. We understand the need to collaborate while condemning it at the same time.
Living in a system of repression like Belarus and under the yoke of a madman like Stalin, the Nazis provide a way out of the madness – an alternative to Stalin. Two of the supporting characters in this narrative are perfectly emblematic of this. One is a village elder (Sergei Yakovlev) who is a reluctant collaborator while the other is a local Nazi interrogator (Anatoli Solonytsin), a cold, practical bureaucrat. The former is a man who seeks safety in collaboration for his family and friends, while the latter is a pure opportunist – someone who is just as happy serving the dictator du jour (Hitler) as he would be engaging in a Stalinist purge. These dichotomous personalities brilliantly mirror Rybak and Sotnikov – especially since their journeys and the inevitable outcomes are so similar: suggesting, of course, that notions of sacrifice and betrayal, collaboration and resistance, good and evil are almost always grey areas in war, and in particular, within repressive regimes.
What is not a grey area in “The Ascent” is suffering – represented not only by the physical pain and death of violence, but by the land itself. Here is where Shepitko’s kino-eye is especially evocative. The bitter cold and the endless, bone-chilling whiteness of snow overwhelm all the exterior shots. One of the more intensely powerful moments involves Rybak dragging a sick and wounded Sotnikov through the snow – for what seems like forever – as Nazi bullets fly at them. Shepitko’s camera is like a mad pit bull’s jaws clenching at its quarry – it seems to never let go of these two men as they painstakingly make their way through the snow.
Throughout the film we see the actors enduring literal physical hardships. Seeing “The Ascent” again, I was reminded of the genius of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo”, a movie that has suffered unnecessarily over the years due to the hype surrounding the mad German (and ethnically Slavic) director’s decision to force his own cast and crew to drag a riverboat through the jungle and over a mountain. When writing at an earlier juncture about Shepitko’s “Krylya/Wings” I was also reminded of Herzog – in that case, it was the documentary “Little Dieter Needs To Fly”. Visually, Herzog and Shepitko are very different. Herzog’s visuals in drama and documentary, while stunning, have the immediacy of cinema vérité while Shepitko is rooted in the classical, sumptuously composed imagery her mentor Dovzhenko was known for. What Shepitko and Herzog share, however, is an unflinching search for truth in image, and in particular, the use of truth in image in the telling of stories cinematically.
Speaking of sharing, it is also worth noting that some of the finest war films of all time were made under the Soviet system – many of which put the best American examples of this genre to shame. That said, Ukrainians appear to have directed the very best Soviet war films. Olexander Dovzhenko (“Arsenal”, “Schors” and his WWII documentaries), Sergei Bondarchuk (“Destiny of a Man”, “War and Peace”), Grigori Chukrai (“Ballad of a Soldier”, “Cold Skies”, “The 41st”) and Shepitko have powerfully and evocatively portrayed the horrors and even glories of war and share Ukrainian ethnicity. Perhaps it is coincidence, or perhaps it is worthy of further study. In any event, it is certainly worth noting. It is also worth reiterating that all the abovementioned filmmakers come from a country that has always been dominated and repressed by other powers. With “The Ascent”, it is finally survival and sacrifice that drives the picture and makes it a film that is haunting, unforgettable and tragic.
Ukrainians, it seems, and others who have lived under repressive regimes, have always known something about survival, sacrifice and war.
“The Ascent” is available on DVD on Criterion’s Eclipse Label.