LARISA SHEPITKO started work on The Ascent (1977) when she was recovering from a extreme spinal harm and pregnant, seized by an afflatus of concern. “I was facing death for the first time,” the Ukrainian director informed an interviewer in June 1979. “Like anyone in such a situation, I was looking for my own formula of immortality.” In doing so, she reached for one of the vital immortal tales ever informed, transposing the Passion of Jesus to the freezing hinterland of Nazi-occupied Belorussia. A Dostoevskian psychodrama of sacrifice and betrayal, The Ascent is her most visually achieved movie, her bleakest, and tragically, her final: In July 1979, Shepitko was killed in a automobile accident at age forty-one, forsaking 4 options. Although lengthy eclipsed by her friends within the Soviet new wave who surfaced from the Khrushchev Thaw—amongst them her VGIK classmates Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Parajanov, and (eventual husband) Elem Klimov—the filmmaker has undergone a small revival lately, culminating now with the Criterion Collection’s enshrinement of The Ascent, the summit of Shepitko’s foreshortened cinema of endurance.
Loosely tailored from a novella by Vasily Bykov, the movie unfolds sparely in grisaille in opposition to a purgatorial canvas of snow. Two Russian partisans—an asthmatic schoolteacher, Sotnikov, and hearty soldier, Rybak (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin, in outstanding display screen debuts)—decamp their ravenous unit within the wilderness to seek for provisions, solely to finish up captured by Germans, interrogated by a sadistic Belorussian-turncoat-cum-Grand-Inquisitor (performed by Tarkovsky common Anatoly Solonitsyn), and in the end escorted to the gallows, the place one partisan embraces martyrdom on behalf of his motherland and the opposite crosses over to Belorussia’s collaborationist police, who make him an confederate to his stoic companion’s execution.
Shepitko was an important evangelist of the human face. Framed in classical Academy ratio, The Ascent dramatizes violence not by explosions and gunplay (the lone prolonged battle scene happens because the opening credit roll), however by a claustral remedy of physiognomy, Vladimir Chukhnov and Pavel Lebeshev’s camerawork seemingly impressed by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), however largely handheld. Impassioned close-ups abound, entreat, accuse—these of Rybak and Sotnikov, but in addition the raft of different souls whose fates have turn out to be miserably entwined with theirs. In its tendency to iconize and graven, the film usually resorts to overly schematic symbolism (Plotnikov, who died at age seventy final month, was particularly solid for his likeness to Orthodox depictions of Christ), however there are simply as many moments of startling nuance and style. For occasion, when a stationary lengthy shot information the procession grimly mounting a steep hill towards Golgotha, a boy races down the facet to retrieve a runaway toboggan, a jarring evocation of childhood that sits uneasily alongside a element simply a few minutes later, when somebody will discover a crate for a younger Jewish woman to face on in order that the noose will attain. In the movie’s most indelible composition, a rapt low-angled shot clings to Sotnikov’s heavenward visage, wavering between mild and shadow, as a horse-drawn sleigh drags the captives to a jail camp, the digital camera’s gaze lastly surrendering focus to a leaden horizon of snow.
Succumbing to the harrowing subzero winter was essential in realizing the virtually abreactive authenticity pursued by solid and crew, who understood the mission as a approach to relive, and reveal, familial traumas. Like Shepitko’s diploma movie, Heat (1963), accomplished in opposition to medical recommendation amid the sickening, celluloid-melting temperatures of the Kazakh steppe, The Ascent figures the pure world as an extension of self, its photographs of blizzardly, unnavigable expanse augmented by sonic motifs of trampled snow and whistling wind. A local weather of shifting affinities. More than Sotnikov and his fellow prisoners, it’s the quisling Rybak—cowardly, but in addition fraternal and kindhearted, as evidenced in an early scene wherein he breathes warmly on his comrade’s head, frozen to a tree—with whom we begrudgingly establish. Aghast at his resolution to collaborate, he’ll finally attempt to hold himself in an outhouse along with his belt, however can not, cursed along with his personal survival.
In providing a shattered reflection of heroism through the so-called Great Patriotic War, The Ascent varieties a diptych with Shepitko’s theatrical debut, the Bergmanesque Wings (1966), one other work numbingly alive to the prices of perseverance. Its middle-aged topic is a veteran feminine fighter pilot (a mesmerizing Maya Bulgakova) who struggles to attach in civilian society; haunted by the reminiscence of her fallen lover, she yearns primarily to as soon as extra slip the surly bonds of earth. A dreamlike examine of postwar disillusionment and non secular starvation, the title acquired a restricted launch and was finally banned. The Ascent, against this, premiered internationally on the 1977 Berlinale, the place it collected the Golden Bear, and emerged unscathed by censors within the irreligious USSR—partly as a result of sure males in energy had watched and seen, or believed they noticed, themselves.
Not all of her compatriots have been impressed. “Even the lighting is calculated to instill the performances with meaning,” Tarkovsky lamented in his 1984 treatise Sculpting in Time, utilizing the film to situation an edict: “Never try to convey your idea to the audience.” In reality, The Ascent compels as a doc of ideological indeterminacy, concurrently indulging and refuting its alternate interpretations as Bolshevik propaganda, biblical allegory, and veiled anti-Stalinist critique. It would discover a extra sympathetic viewer in Susan Sontag, who, writing in a 2002 New Yorker essay, merely declared The Ascent “the most affecting film about the horror of war I know.” Curiously, the identical endorsement would seem the next 12 months in Regarding the Pain of Others, solely the phrase “horror” had been exchanged for “sadness.” Perhaps Sontag needed to order “horror” for Klimov’s better-known antiwar epic, Come and See (1985), to which The Ascent is commonly in contrast—excessively so. Although each masterworks are set in the identical time and place, Klimov orchestrated a sweeping, surreal dirge of meaningless struggling, whereas Shepitko asks us to think about our personal complicity, as unfathomed because the an identical empty fields of snow which are the primary and final thing we see. An finish, but in addition a starting.
The Ascent is accessible to stream on Criterion Channel and shall be launched on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection on January 26.