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Larisa Shepitko directed and co-wrote The Ascent (Voskhozhdenie). The film is a haunting drama set during the Great Patriotic War in World War II, with its story based on Vasil Bykaŭ’s novel, Sotnikov. Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin star as two partisans who fight for survival physically and emotionally amidst the brutal winter in 1942. (KIZJ: 4.5/5)
Review written by FF2 Media Contributing Editor Katusha Jin
It’s bitterly cold in the stark white plains of an unknown area of Belarus. A Soviet partisan group sits against trees, hiding from their German attackers. One of them reaches for a bag of what looks like cold rice, and each soldier has been given a small spoonful to temporarily ease the hunger. They need more supplies, so the team leader sends two men to a farm nearby. “Rybak” (Vladmir Gostyukhin) is the more experienced veteran who has been roughened up by his past encounters. He talks and talks to impart wisdom on his sickly companion, “Sotnikov” (Boris Plotnikov), who trails behind and lets out a chesty cough every few steps.
Trudging through the snow is a pretty slow activity as it is, but after Sotnikov gets shot in the leg, moving becomes dangerously slow. To avoid getting caught, they take refuge at the home of “Demchika” (Lyudmila Polyakova). The mother of three young children unwillingly lets the pair stay. But this visit is short-lived when German soldiers come knocking at the door. When the inevitable happens, and the two starving partisans are found, they are taken as prisoners and interrogated by “Portnov” (Anatoliy Solonitsyn). Portnov is a fellow Russian who has been collaborating with the Germans and torturing the prisoners for answers. Both Sotnikov and Rybak are pushed to their limits as they’re forced to decide what they value the most: life or loyalty.
One of the most enticing elements of the film’s style is how Larisa Shepitko makes use of closeups. As a viewer, I was put in a position where subconsciously, I inspected the minute details of the characters’ faces. As the film progressed, I read into each lift of the eyebrow and twitch in the jaw. This was particularly effective as the actors could channel their emotions through actions as small as a hesitation before a blink. Shepitko’s film masterfully triggers an array of emotional connections from her audience.
According to her older sister, Amelia Tutina, Shepitko always looked at the world with very open eyes so as to absorb everything. She was immensely interested in the psychology of people, how they act, and their characters. The Ascent is a very emotionally intense war film, where the characters question their conscience—there was a dialogue between Sotnikov and Rybak that consists of them arguing over what it means to have a conscience and whether there is anything more important than staying alive. Of course, this section, along with many other parts, was a big nod towards Soviet propaganda. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from the inner tug of war when one is figuring out what the “right” thing to do is.
Shepitko moved to Moscow at the age of sixteen to attend the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography. The competition for this school was notoriously high to the extent that most didn’t even try for it. The directing program that Shepitko was part of included people from sixteen nationalities, with almost half being women. Alexander Dovzhenko, a prominent early Soviet director and screenwriter, took all these newbie directors under his wing. One of his students, Rollan Sergiyenko, described Dovzhenko as a teacher who wanted to plant his way of thinking and his ideas into each of his students’ minds; he wanted to help his students “become humans.” Even though he only taught them a mere one and a half years, “sooner or later, everyone came to understand what he meant by this.”
His motto for film work was: “Make every film as if it’s your last.” As one of his favorite students, Shepitko took this to heart. It’s very fitting that her fourth and last feature was also her greatest film. The Ascent was recognized for its achievements at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival and was awarded the Golden Bear. Her career was truly beginning to take off internationally, and she was then invited to serve on the jury for the festival in 1978.
The Ascent is one of the most powerful war films by one of the greatest female directors—but most have probably not heard of her. In 1979, only a couple of years after The Ascent’s release, director Larisa Shepitko died at the young age of 39 in a car crash incurred while scouting locations for her next film. Her death came as a massive shock for the Soviet cinema community. I am grateful that TCM is screening this film—it’s a chance for this talented Soviet director’s work to continue to spread internationally and remind us of the inner turmoils that indeed make us human.
© Katusha Jin (09/30/2020) FF2 Media
Feature Photo: Director Larisa Shepitko in The Ascent, 1977 (Voskhozhdenie)
Middle Photo: A still from The Ascent (1977)
Bottom Photo: Vladimir Gostyukhin and Boris Plotnikov
Photo Credits: International Film Circuit (USA) (all media)
Q: Does The Ascent pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Yes. One of the earlier moments is when “Demchika” (Lyudmila Polyakova) angrily tells her daughter to look after her younger sister.