Director: Larisa Shepitko
Screenplay: Larisa Shepitko, Yuri Klepikov
Based on a Novel by: Vasiliy Bykov
Starring: Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin, Sergey Yakovlev, Lyudmila Polyakova, Viktoriya Goldentul, Anatoliy Solonitsyn
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 109 min
Larisa Shepitko was a Russian film school contemporary of Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Parajanov and Elem Klimov (who eventually became her husband), as well as a favourite of tutor Aleksandr Dovzhenko who became her biggest influence. However, Shepitko never achieved worldwide recognition like those other greats did, at least not to the same degree. The fact she’s a woman may be partially to do with this, but a devastating incident that occurred just as she was making a big impact on world cinema certainly put a stop to any further development.
Just two years after her international breakthrough film The Ascent won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival (making her only the second female director whose film had won a top award at a major European film festival), she and several crew members were killed in a car accident during a location recce for her follow-up feature, ‘Farewell to Matyora’. Klimov eventually finished the film for her and retitled it Farewell, but Shepitko’s own legacy was unfortunately cut short.
I first came across The Ascent and Shepitko’s work in general through Mark Cousins’ Women Make Film documentary. She was featured quite prominently and the clips from her films impressed me greatly. So I was thrilled to hear her masterpiece The Ascent would be getting a UK release on Blu-ray, courtesy of the Criterion Collection. My thoughts on the film and disc follow.
The Ascent is set during WWII and opens with two Soviet partisans, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), being sent out to find food at a neighbouring farm. When they discover the farm has been burnt to the ground by the Germans, they venture out further and take a lamb from a collaborationist headman (Sergei Yakovlev). On their way back to camp, however, the pair come under fire and Sotnikov is shot in the leg. He comes close to shooting himself when he believes all is lost, but Rybak saves him and drags him out of harm’s way.
The pair head for shelter in the home of Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova), who’s mother to three young children. German soldiers soon arrive though and take Sotnikov, Rybak and Demchikha prisoner.
The two partisans are interrogated by local collaborator Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn), with Sotnikov refusing to co-operate and Rybak telling them everything he knows to avoid execution. They are then thrown into a cellar prison along with Demchikha, the headman they met earlier and a young Jewish girl, Basya (Viktoriya Goldentul), who won’t tell the Germans who was hiding her.
As they await their fate, most of them desperately cling to the belief they might survive, given hope when Sotnikov says he’s willing to take full responsibility for the dead soldier the Germans are particularly riled up about. With his injury, however, it’ll be a struggle to survive the night to make this sacrifice.
Though a war movie on the surface, The Ascent is acutely focussed on the personal rather than wider views of politics, international conflict or history. As Shepitko and Klimov’s son, Anton Klimov, puts it in an interview, his mother wanted “to make a movie about personal choice.” She wanted to keep “emphasis on their situations, choices, their moral choices and moral ambivalence.” She used a wartime setting because few other circumstances can put you face-to-face with such difficult choices.
It does use traditional views of soldiers to its benefit though. At the start of the film, Rebak is portrayed as a traditionally ‘good soldier’ who’s strong, experienced and resourceful, whilst Sotnikov is inexperienced, weak and a hindrance due to illness and later injury. He’s revealed early on to be a teacher, not a trained soldier. However, the film subverts the strength of the pair as it goes in, with Sotnikov becoming the one that refuses to bend under the pressure of interrogation and torture, offering to sacrifice himself for the good of others. Rebak, on the other hand, is willing to do anything it takes to survive.
Shepitko also gives the film a strong religious slant, which reportedly wasn’t in the novel on which it was based. Other than Sotnikov’s desire to sacrifice himself to save the others, this is largely done simply through the way that character is lit and framed. Close-ups of Sotnikov’s face are modelled to look like religious art depicting Christ. This bothered the atheistic Soviet authorities, but the film’s depiction of a self-sacrificing hero during wartime helped keep the film from getting shelved.
It’s a good job too, as it’s an exceptional piece of filmmaking. Not only is the film deeply thought-provoking through its themes mentioned above, but it is also strikingly presented and crafted. Shepitko accentuates the tough, gruelling winter conditions through authentic location shooting, often using a handheld camera to take the audience through the same ordeal as its characters. This is counterbalanced with some carefully composed and lit shots, often close-ups of characters as well as some drifting, dreamlike moments that briefly add an otherworldly quality when Sotnikov seems to be experiencing some form of transcendence.
Shepitko’s close-ups are particularly effective too, bringing us right in on what matters, the characters. This intensity of focus and the nuanced performances of the actors make for a powerfully intimate experience.
The film is not easy to watch though. It’s intensely gruelling, with little respite from the doomed trials of our protagonists. Though tough to watch at times, it is nonetheless totally gripping. A lot of acclaimed Russian cinema from the era is known for its slow, ponderous pace, but this is a film that takes hold and doesn’t let you go.
Also proving powerful is the film’s score. The respected composer Alfred Schnittke provides this. Music is used sparingly for the most part, but in key moments it becomes overwhelmingly potent. The film’s climax, in particular, has a long swell of dissonance that is at once glorious and terrifying.
Overall then, The Ascent is a punishingly bleak and intensely intimate portrayal of the choices we make in difficult times. With religious undertones, it has an air of grace among the grim reality though, bringing spirituality and visual poetry even when there seems little hope. It’s a remarkable film that isn’t easy to watch but is hard to forget.
The Ascent is out on 15th February on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture quality is immaculate, displaying a crisp picture with rich, natural details. Audio is clear too, with the striking score proving particularly powerful when it reaches its peak.
Special features include:
– New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– New selected-scene commentary featuring film scholar Daniel Bird
– New video introduction by Anton Klimov, son of director Larisa Shepitko and filmmaker Elem Klimov
– New 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
– New English subtitle translation
– PLUS: An essay by poet Fanny Howe
Daniel Bird’s selected scene commentary provides thought-provoking analysis and details of how the film compares to the original novella. It’s a shame it only runs for half an hour, but a lot of ground is covered in this time.
The introduction by Anton Klimov is excellent. He gives an interesting take on the film and its themes as well as talking about his mother’s work and reputation in general.
The interview with Lyudmila Polyakova is filled with praise for Shepitko and relates fond memories of working with her, despite the often tough shoot. She also talks of her own life and background in acting.
The Homeland of Electricity is another beautifully crafted film from Shepitko about everyday people with a spiritual slant. The print isn’t in as good condition as The Ascent but it’s watchable enough.
Larisa is moving and beautifully made but Klimov places his wife on a grand pedestal for her art rather than relating intimately touching details. So it has an unusual tone and emphasis for a tribute from someone so close to her.
The two longer documentaries about Shepitko flesh out more of her background and development, as well as her relationship with her husband. Again, they’re quite artfully constructed and filled with great worship for the director.
The lengthy archive interview with Shepitko (in the 1999 program) touches on a variety of subjects, not just her films. It shows her as a deeply passionate, intelligent woman with a strong belief in the importance of spirituality.
I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.
It’s an excellent package with a large amount of material to help you better appreciate the film and its director.