Blu-ray Review: The Ascent | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021  

The Ascent

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jan 21, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Larisa Sheptiko’s final film, The Ascent, is one of punishing tragedy in the face of unspeakable horrors rendered with a rawness often not seen in the cinema of war. Even Come and See, directed by Shepitko’s husband Elem Klimov, has bursts of beauty to juxtapose against the backdrop of terror and suffering.

Not so much in The Ascent, which is just full-on despair for most of its 110-minute runtime. It’s exhausting, but that can’t exactly be used as a deterrent against the film because it’s apparent that Shepitko did not want to sugarcoat or soften the suffering people felt in any way. As such, The Ascent likely won’t fall into any “most rewatched” list, but its images will likely linger long after the credits roll so it may not be necessary.

The film follows two starving Soviet partisans – Sotnikov and Rybak - from a depleted and likewise hungry group of their comrades fleeing from the Nazis through the snow-covered forest. They’re sent on a mission to find food at a nearby farm but discover it burnt to the ground and its inhabitants gone upon arrival. They move onward to a local village, get into an argument with an elder who has helped the Nazis to preserve his own way of life. They nearly come to blows, but the soldiers leave peacefully with a dead lamb to use as food.

As they travel back toward the camp, they are ambushed by Nazi soldiers. Sotnikov, who was already battling sickness, is shot in the leg and their escape becomes all the more precarious and difficult, especially considering their surroundings. It’s in his state of delirium stemming from being shot and his constant coughing that he begins to drift, as though he exists partially between the world of the living and the world of the dead. While the film never fully crosses over to overt spiritual awakening or abstract representations of the incoming afterlife, Sotnikov is clearly coming to grips with his own mortality and the temporary nature of the physical world. He reacts by mostly shedding fear and embracing a sense of duty to withstand anything the Nazis – who eventually capture the pair – throw at him.

It comes down to choices and how similar circumstances can push different people down different paths. Where Sotnikov becomes more concerned with preserving his fellow Russian and saving as many as he can by withholding information from the Nazis, Rybak becomes increasingly focused on saving his own hide. Rybak, who is depicted from the beginning as the more physically competent of the two, is constantly envisioning escape attempts that ultimately end in his own demise, so it comes as no real surprise when he accepts an offer to become a Nazi informant and detective. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, as it were.

And while Rybak is accused of being a “Judas” – contrasted with Sotnikov’s ostensible Jesus – it’s difficult to truly cast him off as a villain. He’s a tragic figure who made a choice that will haunt him for however long he manages to live with the guilt or until the Nazis grow tired of him and kill him anyway. For this to land without him being a totally reprehensible character, Shepitko’s depiction of war and the world within its confines had to be appropriately stark and catastrophic. She and her team were up to the task and the true toll of the time is felt long before Sotnikov and Rybak have to deal directly with their sadistic, gun-toting opponents. Long shots of them stamping through the snow with the entire landscape nearly washed out in a sea of blinding white make it seem like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. This is rendered even more realistically because the film was shot under the conditions as seen on screen with no true respite from the cold. Needless to say, the shoot was grueling.

They battle the elements and constantly appear on the verge of succumbing to nature. Add a cold-hearted enemy on top of that, and Rybak surrendering to his weakest urges in the name of survival, while still disappointing and repugnant, is less shocking and less easy to chastise because anyone could theoretically make that same choice no matter how much moral character they believe they possess.

Shepitko tragically died in an accident a couple years after this movie was made. Her son, Anton Klimov, talks about her method and legacy in a video introduction on the disc. Ironically, these introductions are often best left until after watching the movie as they tend to discuss all the plot points. Anton talks about his mother’s dedication to craft as well as how her spirituality affected her filmmaking and The Ascent in particular. The disc itself serves as a welcome tribute to Shepitko, a talented filmmaker who was likely only just hitting her creative stride. In addition to the intro, her short film The Homeland of Electricity, a short tribute titled Larisa – directed by her husband Elem Klimov – and a pair of documentaries help provide a portrait of the director, hopefully preserving her image and skills going forward.

The Ascent is hardly an easy watch, but it is an essential one for anyone interested in war cinema. And it is one of the best counter-arguments to Francois Truffaut’s statement that “there is no such thing as an anti-war movie” because there is absolutely nothing enticing about what is shown on screen.



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