The Ascent (Voskhozhdenie)

Director: Larisa Shepitko
Screenplay: Yuri Klepikov & Larisa Shepitko (based on the novel by Vasiliy Bykov)
Stars: Boris Plotnikov (Sotnikov), Vladimir Gostyukhin (Rybak), Sergey Yakovlev (Village elder), Lyudmila Polyakova (Demchikha), Viktoriya Goldentul (Basya), Anatoliy Solonitsyn (Portnov, the Nazi interrogator), Mariya Vinogradova (Village elder’s wife), Nikolai Sektimenko (Stas)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1977
Country: Soviet Union
The Ascent Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Ascent

Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (Voskhozhdenie), which takes place during World War II and tells the story of two Soviet partisans battling against the invading German army during a brutal winter in Byelorussia (present-day Belarus), is a powerful film both physically and spiritually. The ruthless winter conditions in which it was shot translate directly into the images, giving them a bone-chilling physicality—a sense of presence and palpable experience—that is comparable to the more daring works of Werner Herzog, who always insisted on shooting on location regardless of how dangerous that location might be. The freezing cold is its own character in The Ascent, and it wraps itself around everything, adding to the film’s unique balance of realism and mystical lyricism.

The story unfolds over several days, opening en media res as we join during the opening credits with a rag-tag group of desperate Soviet partisans and villagers dragging themselves through the heavy snow, trying to avoid German patrols. Two of the men—the blonde-haired, doe-eyed Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and the dark-haired, hard-eyed Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin)—soon stand out, their differences in appearance and temperament belied by their need to work together to survive. After a skirmish with German soldiers that leaves Sotnikov shot in the leg, they make their way to a remote farmhouse occupied by a woman named Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova) and her three young children. Demchikha, despite a gruff demeanor, does her best to hide them when the German soldiers arrive, but the ruse fails and they all end up in custody, taken away to a local village and interrogated by a beady-eyed, collaborationist official (Anatoliy Solonitsyn). Sotnikov, who is steadfast in his determination to remain allied to the cause, never waivers, while Rybak, who is practical and limited in his loyalties, is torn by his desire to survive, even if that means collaborating with the Germans.

Thus, the film, which was an adaptation of prolific Soviet writer Vasiliy Bykov’s 1970 novella Sotnikov, is fundamentally about death—or, more specifically, how we respond to the threat of imminent demise. As Shepitko put it in her final interview in June 1979, “At that time, I was facing death for the first time [a reference to the danger she faced giving birth to her son shortly after a major spinal injury], and like anyone in such a situation, I was looking for my own formula of immortality.” Sotnikov and Rybak are both thrust by the maw of history and war into an unthinkable situation in which they must first struggle to survive and then confront death at the hands of the Nazis (it should be noted that Byelorussia was the site of numerous Nazi atrocities during the war, with an estimated 1 million people killed during the three-year German occupation, giving the frigid location an especially tense significance). Sotnikov, as played by Boris Plotnikov, a theatre actor in his first film role, at first appears to be weak, especially as compared to the ruthless survival instincts embodied by Rybak; but, as the film progresses, we begin to recognize an almost ethereal strength in his actions, in his refusal to speak to the German authorities, in his submission to his fate. There is no “one moment” when he transfigures from victim to martyr; rather, it is a slow, almost imperceptible progression, but one so strong and unyielding that his stepping onto the gallows becomes not an act of defeat, but a transfiguration of the horrors of wars into a beatific act of spirituality. The harsh black-and-white cinematography by Vladimir Chukhnov is imminently flexible in its effect, using the nearly abstract depiction of the snow-choked landscape to strike us with bone-chilling intensity, but also transforming Sotnikov’s experience into something that approaches the divine (the moody, ethereal musical score by veteran composer Alfred Schnittke has a significant impact, as well).

Unfortunately, The Ascent was Shepitko’s last film, as she died in a car crash, along with four others, two years later outside of Leningrad while location scouting for her next film (in a diary entry on the day she was buried, the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky noted that the crash “was so sudden that no adrenaline was found in their blood”). During that short life (she was only 41 when she died), Shepitko completed four theatrical features, a made-for-television movie, and a segment of an omnibus film, and much of her career was mired in conflict with the Soviet censors. The release of Wings (Krylya, 1966), which told the story of a former fighter pilot working as a school principal, was extremely limited and the film was eventually banned outright; her segment for the omnibus film Beginning of an Unknown Era (Nachalo nevedomogo veka, 1967) was shelved for 20 years because the authorities felt that its depiction of the Bolsheviks was negative; and You and Me (Ty i ya, 1971) had to be cut before the government would allow it to play as an official entry in the Venice Film Festival. Around that same time Mosfilm replaced her with Andrey Smirnov on Belorussky Station (Belorusskiy vokzal, 1971) when government censors caught wind of changes she was planning from the source novel.

One might think that, given its clear spiritual and mystical overtones, The Ascent might have run into similarly censorious issues with the government authorities, but Shepitko was able to marshal the project through with no objections, partially because the wartime setting and the depiction of Soviet resilience in the face of atrocity was viewed as an expression of national pride (around the same time Tarkovsky, with whom Shepitko briefly crossed paths at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, was busy with his own brand of boundary-pushing mystical Soviet cinema). The Ascent won her great acclaim, winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival (over films by François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, and Juraj Herz, among others). It is all the more tragic, then, that her untimely death came at the very moment when she had achieved her greatest recognition, poised to extend the arc of her artistry into realms that we will now never truly know.

The Ascent Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
Audio
  • Russian Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Selected-scene audio commentary by film scholar Daniel Bird
  • Video introduction by Anton Klimov, son of director Larisa Shepitko and filmmaker Elem Klimov
  • Video interview with actor Lyudmila Polyakova
  • The Homeland of Electricity, a 1967 short film by Shepitko
  • Larisa, a 1980 short film tribute to his late wife by Klimov
  • Two documentaries from 2012 about Shepitko’s life, work, and relationship with Klimov
  • Program from 1999 featuring an interview with Shepitko
  • Essay by poet Fanny Howe
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 26, 2021

    COMMENTS
    The Ascent was previously released by Criterion as part of their Eclipse line back in 2008, where it was packaged together with Wings (1966) on DVD. With an official spine number as part of the Collection, the film has been given a new 4K digital transfer from the original 35mm camera negative that was restored by Mosfilm. The image looks immaculate, with incredible detail, contrast, and clarity that gives new power to the film’s physical and ethereal tone. The whites of the snow are bold and clear, while the darker portions of the frame maintain strong blacks and excellent shadow detail. There is little to no visible damage or wear. The monaural soundtrack is presented on an uncompressed Linear PCM track that sounds strong and clear. And, while the Eclipse set offered no supplements, this disc is packed, playing as a kind of long-overdue tribute to Larisa Shepitko’s entire career. Film scholar Daniel Bird, an expert in Eastern European cinema, offers half an hour of selected-scene audio commentary, which is good enough that you wish he had recorded one for the entire film. We also get a 17-minute video introduction by Shepitko’s son, journalist Anton Klimov, who discusses his mother’s work and what it was like being a small child in the home while she and his father, filmmaker Elem Klimov, collaborated on projects. Klimov is a regular presence among many of the supplements, which underscores his dedication to and love for his late wife. His moving 1980 short film Larisa, which pays endearing tribute to Shepitko, is included, which gives us footage from all of her films along with voice recordings and photographs. Also on the disc are a number of Russian television programs: “Islands” (2012, 40 min.), which features interviews with the Shepitko’s sister Emilia Tutina and son; “More Than Love” (2012, 40 min.), which focuses on Shepitko and Klimov’s relationship and features interviews with Klimov’s brother, the writer German Klimov, and screenwriter Natalya Ryazantseva; and “A Talk With Larisa" (1999, 52 min.), which is primarily footage of an interview by German film critic and journalist Felicia von Nostitz with Shepitko that was recorded just after the 1978 Berlin International Film Festival (where she served as a jurist) that is introduced by Klimov and film critic Irina Rubanova. We also get a new video interview with actor Lyudmila Polyakova (22 min.), who discusses her work on the film, and The Homeland of Electricity, Shepitko’s 39-minute short film that was originally intended to be part of the 1967 omnibus film Beginning of an Unknown Era but was shelved by Soviet authorities due to its supposedly negative depiction of the Bolsheviks. It was unseen until 1987, when Elem Klimov helped get it screened.

    Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)




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