Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent is one of the best war films I’ve ever seen, and maybe one of the best films I’ve ever seen. For the genre, it’s on par with her husband’s wartime masterpiece, Come and See.
The World War II story of two pro-Soviet soldiers who set out in freezing conditions for food, meet villagers along the way, and are eventually captured by German soldiers is harrowing, grim, stunning, and even uplifting.
There’s a pretty obvious Christ-like metaphor going on throughout the film. One of the protagonists, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) soon takes on that role after a series of near-death experiences (one, his own suicide; the other, his urge to kill a traitor), and also perhaps thanks to the tranquil, beautiful nature that he constantly stares at above the horror down on his level.
Plotnikov is perfectly cast. His eyes are mesmerizing, and for the better part of the movie he looks deep into people’s eyes, almost through them:
There’s an enigmatic, critical moment where Sotnikov stares off, and a light emanates (a halo) around him, growing larger and larger:
Shepitko smartly follows that up with a shot of a German soldier opening the prison door and letting exterior light in – as though justifying the change in exposure – but that’s intentionally misleading.
There’s plenty of other evidence of the biblical allegory at play. Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), Sotnikov’s fellow soldier, plays Judas to his Christ. In fact, following their mini-Calvary (where Sotnikov falls and must be helped towards his demise)-
-Ryabk is even called a Judas. There’s the open, empty prison cell doors that Rybak stares at in horror-
-as though it’s an open tomb, perhaps?
But The Ascent isn’t great for these reasons (though they help: I like a film that takes what can be a beat-you-over-the-head religious metaphor and humanizes someone like Jesus into just another person who is conflicted in the midst of man’s inhumanity to man).
The film is also plainly beautiful. Shepitko and cinematographers Vladimir Chukhnov and Pavel Lebeshev have plenty of striking images. I love this simple over-the-shoulder where the men see signs of life. It’s traditionally pleasing, with that diagonal branch acting as a nice line to follow, and it also emphasizes negative space, which the film does so well:
And while there are plenty of fantastic wides, there’s also some pretty intense handheld. This moment where Rybak drags his wounded friend through the snow feels real, harsh, and long:
And that ending frame is pain and bliss at once, which a whole lot of The Ascent is.
There are unexpected shots, like this one of Sotnikov, post-capture, on his back on a sled:
This is brilliant in many ways. Not only is the performance consistent and strangely compelling, but the sudden flood of light in the second shot really changes the tone to something transcendental (and accepting). As the camera inches away from Sotnikov in shots 3 and 4, and eventually changes focus from him to the landscape (one of those aforementioned examples), it becomes clear that he’s changing, and that there is beauty even in the most dangerous moments.
There are other things to ponder in the film. Like, why does Rybak imagine his death twice, and both times end up in a nearly identical position (is this more biblical stuff (ie Peter’s denial); is this cowardice personified; is this some form of post-film inevitability)?
And there’s the wordless exchange that Sotnikov has with an unnamed boy, the former with a noose around his neck, the latter staring and shedding a tear, all of this taking place as the film builds to a chilling crescendo:
Their eyelines are pretty tight to camera, which is a great decision – to pull the audience in further. It’s also nearly classically Neo-Realist in the youthful involvement. There’s a hint of optimism in their knowing gazes.