Sunday, 24 February 2008

The Ascent (1976, Soviet Union, Larisa Shepitko)

The Ascent is yet to be released in DVD format, and even obtaining a VHS copy is near impossible. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to do so, but obviously had to pay quite a lot to do so. Regrettably, this means that very few people will have had the opportunity to see this film - it has marginally over 200 votes on IMDB. I can only hope that it is not long before it emerges on DVD, but even that might be complicated by who holds the rights and so on.

Whilst there are undoubtedly a number of Soviet films that approach World War Two in a typically one handed way, offering no more than simple propaganda, it is telling that the most famous Soviet films in the West are more sophisticated than this, and I'm thinking of Ivan's Childhood, Come and See, The Cranes Are Flying and so on. What these films have in common is a lack of glorifying the war effort, a recognition that heroism didn't come naturally, that some collaborated with the Nazis and so on, and The Ascent is no different to these aforementioned films.

Two soldiers, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladmir Gostyukhin) become stranded from their group (which is shown as being under-prepared and starving). Searching for shelter and food, they rearch a farm where they discover that the elder has collaborated with the Nazis. They condemn him for dishonouring their son, who is fighting, but his wife pleads that they did not do so willingly; that they were forced to. On the run, they then hide in a village which is also occupied by the Nazis. When discovered, the family they were hiding with, are also arrested.

Shepitko then focuses on the interrogation of the two men, who show distinctly different personality traits; Sotnikov is unwilling to talk and betray others, but Rybak is more weak-willed and talks more easily. The Christian imagery that had infused the film to this point becomes far more obvious now, with the soldiers representing Christ and Judas respectively; with Sotnikov becoming a martyr and Rybak offering his services to the Nazis and betraying his own people. Rybak also is shown being directly responsible for Sotnikov's death, though much like Judas, he finds this difficult to live with.

The nearest comparison to The Ascent is possibly Come and See, directed by Shepitko's husband, Elim Klimov. Both show not only the horror of war but also the level of collaboration of ordinary Soviet citizens with the Nazis. Both films are set in Belarus, which was occupied from 1941, and it is acknowledged that numerous native citizens were involved in massacres of towns and villages. The Ascent does not show all collaborators are treacherous or evil - the elder from the farm is the complete opposite of Portnov, the interrogator.

This was unfortunately the last film Shepitko made; she died in a car accident shortly after. The Ascent is a phenomenal war film - the black and white photography is superb, and as much of the film is set against a backdrop of snow, it almost looks like a blank canvass. Much like what the characters endure, the film takes a physical and emotional toll. Not a simple film to watch by any means but infinitely rewarding. 4.5/5

1 comment:

Alexandre said...


I was also lucky enough to get a copy of "The Ascent" on VHS at an accessible price curiously in Barcelona in 1999. I had seen it previously in a Russian movie cycle in Lisbon (where I live) and was amazed by its stark beauty.

Best regards,