*WARNING: THIS PIECE CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR THE ASCENT*
Ukrainian-born Soviet director Larisa Shepitko’s fifth and final film, The Ascent, is a war narrative unlike any other. Shepitko was not interested in battle sequences and displays of gallantry – which, in other films, often serve to glorify war and bypass its true costs – but rather in the extreme physical and psychological traumas endured by individuals in World War II. In The Ascent, this is filtered through the subjective lens of two Soviet soldiers. Upon its release in 1977, the film received notable acclaim, winning the Golden Bear award at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival. Since then, however, it has receded into obscurity, remaining hugely under-seen even amongst avid film fans. This is not least a consequence of Shepitko’s gender (consider the relative fame of her contemporary Andrei Tarkovsky); audiences and critics struggled to reconcile the filmmaker’s gender with the ‘masculine’ characters of her films. This supposed mismatch, however, was merely an external creation – Shepitko took ownership and pride in her identity, saying: “there’s…no frame in my film, not a single one, that doesn’t come from me as a woman”, and the brutality of her films were a manifestation of her own thematic interests and concerns.
Shepitko’s unique approach to The Ascent was informed by her own life experiences. In 1973, she suffered spinal damage after a fall and was required to remain in hospital for seven months, a period in her life she recounted as “a long journey into myself”. Soon after she gave birth to her son which, because of her injury, was a jeopardisation of her life. Shepitko described this experience as “facing death for the first time”, after which she began to make her first preparations for The Ascent. These experiences undoubtedly influenced her decision to film The Ascent in a way which foregrounds the individual embodied experiences of the characters, as she now had her own brushes with death to draw from.
This visceral style was something of a departure from the social realism prescribed in typical Soviet war films, whose characters were, as William Guynn writes in his book Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe, ‘examples of their social categories’; faultless and transparent role models for future generations. The characters in The Ascent, however, ‘exist in a complex world of experience that eschews the easy rhetoric of the fable’, possessing rich inner lives and often failing to take what would be considered the most honourable course of action. By radically distilling the historical period of World War II down to the experiences of two main individuals, Shepitko intended to, in her own words, explore “the spirituality of the Soviet man” and examine the psychological motivators behind human behaviour more widely.
The first scene after the opening credits of The Ascent – during which the only battle scene in the film occurs – announces Shepitko’s refusal to romanticise war. As a unit trudges through the deep snow, the sounds of their laboured breathing are amplified, already emphasising the physical toll of their situation. Yet this does not mean that Shepitko’s direction is not poetic and evocative – on the contrary. As the unit stops to rest and a single spoon of rationed grain is given to each individual, Shepitko cuts to a stunning series of arresting close-ups of unit members’ faces. We can see every wrinkle on an elderly woman’s face, the droplets of condensation on the cheeks and upper lip of a young man. Their eyes burn with helplessness, anger and determination. Though we have only just met them, we can already feel their struggle. We are introduced to their world and their circumstances not analytically, but sensually.
The intimacy Shepitko cultivates in this scene is something she continues to build upon throughout the film. Guynn notes that The Ascent ‘calls on the most emotional kind of identification’ with its characters. After being sent out to search for food for their starving unit, soldiers Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) are spotted by German soldiers, and Sotnikov is shot in the leg from afar. As Rybak bolts into the trees for cover from the shower of bullets headed in their direction, a wounded Sotnikov attempts to take his own life with his rifle, determined not to be taken alive by Nazis. Shepitko’s use of a long take as Sotnikov struggles to complete this act, mounting his gun between his feet, anchors us uncomfortably within his sense of time, intensifying the urgency and realism of the scene. Right before he intends to pull the trigger, we cut to a point-of-view shot as Sotnikov gazes up at the moon emerging from behind thin wisps of grey cloud. This shot in particular (along with several others throughout the film) is deployed with the intention of bringing us into the interior lives of these soldiers, in their moments of silent contemplation, and Shepitko has the courage to allow us access to a character’s inner world in what they believe to be their last moments.
Shepitko’s characters ‘exist in a world of sensation, touching (and touched by) the environment that envelops them’ (Guynn). This is no more apparent than in the following scene, where Rybak musters the courage to return to his fallen comrade. Interrupting Sotnikov’s pre-death vigil, Rybak drags his crippled comrade clumsily through the snow in a desperate rescue attempt. In this stunningly visceral sequence, we are in the snow too – the camera mimics the soldiers’ unsteady movements, heaving its way through the snow and shoving through the leafless brambles as they do, so close as if it could almost collide with the figures it is filming. White snow peppers the soldiers’ black uniforms as they clamber along the forest floor, and the soundscape descends into a vivid mixture of cracking branches, groans of pain and the crunch of thick, powdery snow. There are no wide, contextualising shots for the entirety of the scene; Shepitko allows her audience no reprieve. We have no choice but to latch onto the men’s desperation, their disorientation, their fear in this moment. Given the physical intensity of performing the scene (the film was shot in January at the height of the Russian winter, when conditions dropped as much as 40 degrees below freezing), the struggle on the actors’ faces is palpable and real. Shepitko makes it clear that this is not a heroic struggle, but a desperate attempt to stay alive, viscerally representing the immense physical pressures and strains that bodies underwent in wartime to simply continue living.
Still unsuccessful at retrieving food for their unit, Rybak and the now injured Sotnikov come across a seemingly empty cabin, which they discover is in fact the home of a woman, Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova), and her three children. Soon after their arrival, however, Sotnikov spots German soldiers in the distance, heading towards the cabin. Demchikha tells Rybak and Sotnikov to hide in the attic, which they do in time for the Germans to arrive. Once again, Shepitko tethers us to Rybak and Sotnikov: the Nazis’ arrival is framed through the attic roof, its wooden planks fragmenting their bodies into isolated glimpses of legs, arms and heads. We don’t know what happens when the German soldiers enter Demchikha’s home – we hear only shouting and the smashing of plates. The lack of subtitles for the German dialogue brings us even further into the subjective experience of Rybak and Sotnikov, whose knowledge is also ours.
As the two men wait nestled amongst the straw on the attic floor, the sickly Sotnikov struggles to prevent himself from coughing, a battle he eventually loses, giving away their position. Demchikha’s cries of protest are heard as the Germans find a way into the attic. When the hand of a German soldier grips the attic entrance to pull himself up, the camera imitates Rybak’s gaze, shrinking behind the straw in fear. Then, an extreme close-up of Rybak’s terrified expression – possibly the last of his life – fills the screen as the sound of the German soldier cocking his machine gun stands alone in the sound mix. The human face is a ‘terrain to be explored’ (Guynn), and rich chiaroscuro-style lighting to match puts the turbulent psychological states of characters on profoundly confronting display. Rybak steals a glance at Sotnikov, whose hands cover his face as he lies buried in the hay, the focus of the shot then shifting to a single strand of straw trembling in the winter breeze. In mere seconds, Shepitko communicates the two men’s sheer fragility in this moment, their defencelessness and their vulnerability. Shepitko cuts to a close-up of the barrel of the gun, ratcheting the tension up to smouldering levels by dropping us into the body of Rybak himself. It is as if, like his, our fate teeters in the balance.
The Ascent is a stunningly intimate tale of survival in wartime, its honesty in drawing us into the imperfect lived experiences of its characters made even more impressive by the more objective standards of historical filmmaking prevalent at the time of its creation. Through the film’s harrowing second half and its agonising conclusion, it becomes apparent that physical strength does not necessarily translate into psychological resilience. Shepitko’s characters are not pawns serving a higher moralistic purpose, but flawed, complex and realistic individuals compelled to make impossible decisions under the immense, nightmarish pressure brought about by war.
The Ascent would be Shepitko’s last completed work as a filmmaker, as her life was tragically cut short when she was killed in a car accident at just 41 years old, along with four other members of her crew while location scouting for a sixth film. Across her five completed features, which include a character study of a former woman fighter pilot in Wings and an abstract drama concerning a neurosurgeon’s existential crisis in You and Me, her immense talent is evident. It is painful to speculate about what she would have achieved, had her career not been all too brief. But what we can do is lift up and admire the work she did leave us. To do so would be to continue a vital and never-ending quest: unearthing the work of women which has been forgotten in histories of art and cinema, and affording it the respect and visibility it deserves.
by Alex Williams