The Steep Emotional Climb of The Ascent (1976)

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The year of 1977 in the movies is overshadowed by one major box office transforming success, Star Wars. It is also known as the year that Woody Allen stepped away from slapstick and journeyed into more sophisticated filmmaking, enjoying both critical and Oscar success with Annie Hall, which won Best Picture. What it is not known for is the gut-kicking morality tale directed by Larisa Shepitko, The Ascent (released in the USSR in 1976, Europe and the states, 1977). Too bad, it’s the best film of the year. Hell, it may be the best film of the seventies.

The Ascent tells the story of a group of refugees in Nazi-occupied Belarus during the winter of 1942. They have wandered far from their homes and farms in an effort to escape the Nazis and stay alive. They engage the Nazis in a firefight in the snow and retreat into the woods. They have escaped the bullets but hunger awaits. As they sit in the snow covered forest, they devise a plan: send out two soldiers to find food and bring it back.

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The two soldiers, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) begin their journey with little hope for success. Perhaps they’ll find a farm, perhaps they won’t. If they do, it might be teeming with Nazis, making the whole effort pointless. In the opening moments as they leave the refugee encampment, director Shepitko signals their doom with a shudder: As they leave, Rybak looks back at the group. The camera passes in front of the trees and the refugees fade from view until the wind sends snow from the trees onto his neck, resulting in bracing chill. The viewer suspects then and there that Sotnikov and Rybak will never see their comrades again. That’s not intended as a giveaway on Shepitko’s part, just a stark statement that everyone knows their mission is doomed but still they do it, hoping against hope that something will come of it.

As they walk, Rybak  talks and talks, remarking how he could have done the job by himself but is glad they sent two, if only to keep each other company. When they come upon a farm, they are both surprised that something actually came of their mission and begin to envision the possibility that they may make it back with food for the camp. Inside the house is a Russian farmer collaborating with the Nazis, not because he has any interest in helping them but because he is desperate to keep himself and his family alive. Rybak has little sympathy for him and the two make off with a sheep to take back to the camp only to be met by Nazis who quickly trap them in a firefight. One of the soldiers is injured and the other makes a break for it, with the sheep over his shoulders only to question himself immediately. Should he go back and rescue his comrade or keep going? He goes back, gets his comrade to safety and tries to nurse him back to health. What happens after that (this covers only the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the movie) can only be described in emotional terms as jarring, brutal, and relentless. That’s not meant to dissuade anyone from watching it but to acknowledge that the movie pulls no punches and the moral center of the characters will be beaten down and battered by the conclusion.

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Director Larisa Shepitko graduated from the All-Russian State University of Cinematography (now the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) in 1963. She had only done a couple of shorts and a couple of feature films, released in the Soviet Union, before her work on The Ascent so as far as the rest of the world was concerned, in 1977 she appeared out of nowhere. In actuality, she was a fully matured director who was ready to examine the unbearable travails of those poor souls caught up in hellish days of World War II.

Watching the movie today, one thing the viewer immediately notices are the techniques, such as shaky documentary style shooting for firefights, that would become commonplace decades later. Filmed on location during the winter in absolutely real and bitterly cold winter conditions, Shepitko’s war has little in common with other World War II movies. For one thing, it doesn’t feel like a war movie so much as a survival movie. For another, there is no sense of victory anywhere.  No heroes killing the bad guys in the end, no cowards finally working up their nerve for the final scene. This movie has no romantic notions of what took place in Belarus under Nazi occupation. None. It is both stark and unflinching.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for pathos and melodrama which the movie does contain but it works as a relief to the ceaseless heartbreak. And, yes, there are some heavy-handed metaphors during the climax. To say the movie is not subtle about its Jesus/Judas symbolism is an understatement: it practically flashes as much on a neon sign in front of the viewer’s face. And, honestly, I’m okay with that. I’ve never been against heavy-handed symbolism if it works and in The Ascent, it works.

Boris Plotnikov made his debut in The Ascent with the role of Sotnikov and carries himself well. He continued acting after his debut well into the 21st century but his first film remains his most famous. As for Vladimir Gostyukhin, who plays Rybak, what can one say? It is one of the best performances of the decade and a profoundly complex one. His character turns inside out in so many different ways, and ends up gutting the audience in silent desperation in a way few other actors could have achieved. When Rybak feels despair, the audience feels it deep in their souls.

So what happened in 1977 that kept this movie from getting the recognition it deserved? Well, for starters, the Academy Awards rejected it as a nominee that year. Madame Rosa, with Simone Signoret, won the award for Best Foreign Language film, and it is a fine piece of work (at least as far as I recall from seeing it on VHS about twenty years ago). The Academy Awards get their fair share of derision, much of it deserved, but a nomination can help a foreign film gather steam. Today, even without the nomination, it has slowly gathered up some of that well deserved recognition. Sadly, Larisa Shepitko didn’t live to see that happen. She was killed in an auto accident just two years after its release. She did not leave a large body of work behind, but judging from The Ascent, one of the best morality tales ever produced, I can say with certainty that the cinema, and the world, lost something special when she died.

Greg Ferrara

4 Responses The Steep Emotional Climb of The Ascent (1976)
Posted By El Tone : December 3, 2016 1:51 am

Intense film — I’d rank it with “Come and See.”

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 3, 2016 11:36 am

Oh my god, yes! Another great film that was not accepted for nomination by the Academy. Insane! Come and See is one of the most devastating accounts of this same era in existence. There seems to be an unfortunate tradition of great films from the Soviet era of the sixties, seventies, and eighties being ignored in America.

Posted By Doug : December 3, 2016 9:50 pm

Today I picked up a more recent Polish production: “Ida” 2013, by Pawel Pawlikowski. Haven’t yet watched it, but it looks interesting. Ida was my mother’s name.

Posted By ziggy 6708 : December 8, 2016 4:37 am

Greg, thanks for blogging about a film that actually aired on TCM!
Great writeup on a powerful film!

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