Ranking: #67/111

Director: Larisa Shepitko (Ukraine/Soviet)            

Genre: War Drama

Ukrainian-Soviet film director, Larisa Shepitko, died tragically young in a car accident but not before she’d made a landmark war drama called The Ascent. Born in 1938, she was child during World War 2 (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War). Her father, who left his wife and children in a permanent separation, fought in the war.

The “ascent” (or “ascension”) of the title is the struggle to survive under extreme conditions of war, while trying keeping your integrity intact in a time of widespread moral compromises and even betrayals. The director was undergoing her own ascent while making this movie. Firstly, the film was shot in freezing, perilous winter conditions. Secondly, she had health problems to contend with. And, thirdly, she had to keep up a fine artistic balancing act as the communist authorities at Mosfilm were watching out to see if her film was a religious parable, instead of promoting the values of patriotism as required in the Soviet system (even though the Thaw in Soviet society was, by then, underway under Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev).

Following a skirmish in the woods during the Great Patriotic War, two Soviet partisans get separated from their company as they search for food in a Belarusian village. The fulcrum of the film’s narrative is the relationship between the two contrasting men, Sotnikov and Rybak. Shepitko counterpoints them because she wants to explore how these two different characters will respond to their eventual capture. During a gunfight in the snow with a German patrol, Sotnikov is shot in the leg. Rybak helps him to safety, where they find shelter at the home of the home of Demchikha, the mother of three young children. At this point, Rybak is presented as the stronger of the two, with the quieter man seeming almost weak. Later in the story, these roles are reversed, as the true spiritual depth of Sotnikov shines through and Rybak eventually loses his integrity and becomes a collaborator out of his fear of torture.

The cinematography, painted in blacks, whites and greys, is powerful.

The two Russian patriots and a distraught Demchikha, crying for her children, are taken prisoner and are escorted to German regional headquarters for interrogation. When Sotnikov refuses to answer any questions, he’s tortured, but still refuses to give up any information. By contrast, Rybak tells the interrogator what he thinks the police already know, hoping to live so he can escape later. He is offered the option of collaborating. When they are all led out the next morning to be hanged, Rybak accepts the offer to work with the Germans in return for his life. While Sotnikov, Christ-like, goes to his death, his compatriot becomes a hated traitor. As in the case of Judas, Rybak weeps when he realises fully that he has sold out his soul to the enemy. The director, though, has kept things nuanced because we remember the good qualities shown by Rybak earlier in the story when he helped Sotnikov to a safe place.

While Shepitko learnt a lot about the school of Socialist Realism at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography from her mentor, Alexander Dovzhenko, one of the undisputed masters of cinema’s silent era, she had a spiritual and mystic side she was exploring by the time she made this film. Like Andrei Tarkovsky, who was a fellow student at the institute, she knew there were Christian roots in Russian and Ukrainian culture which couldn’t be ignored. Although there was a cultural Thaw in Russia, the threat of censorship was ever present. This created significant personal stress for both Shepitko and Tarkovsky as artists trying to “ascend” to artistic freedom in their films. In the end, though, she succeeded in embedding a spiritual, Christian message into the film with great subtlety.

The Ascent turned out to be her last film. Just as James Dean was lost to cinema far too young due to a tragic car accident in 1955, so did the movie industry lose one of its outstanding directorial talents way too soon when Shepitko was killed in a car crash in 1979.