The Ascent
d. Larisa Shepitko (1977)
The Criterion Collection

One of the best releases from The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series is the two-film set Eclipse 11: Larisa Shepitko. It contains her debut feature, 1966’s Wings, and her final film, 1977’s The Ascent. I’m a big fan of the Eclipse series, having dedicated a substantial amount of time (several years) doing a podcast on each set with my friend David Blakeslee (see the archives from episode 1 to episode 63 here), and I’m thrilled to see one of its greatest gems get a Blu-ray release. There are other films in that line of standard definition releases that deserve their own upgraded releases, complete with supplemental features (the Eclipse DVDs came only with liner notes, though those notes were typically very good), but The Ascent is in the top tier, and it is most welcome.

What an excellent release. Taken from a 4K restoration, the film looks absolutely astonishing. The black and white cinematography — so important to the film’s themes — took my breath away. The snow shimmers. The blackness sucks you in. This is an important release that helps this poetic, transcendent, bleak film look its best.

The Ascent is an adaptation of the Belorusian novelist Vasil Bykov’s novel 1970 novel Sotnikov, titled after one of the main characters. Bykov was a young man during World War II, and many of his novels explore the many angles of that conflict. Here we have a nuanced exploration of the internal conflicts of some of the Belorusians who found themselves living in hell during the time the Nazis occupied Belarus.

The film begins in the snowy Belorusian landscape. A group of partisans, members of the resistance movements, emerges from the snowbanks and takes shelter in some trees. There they share their meager rations — small handfuls of dried raspberries — and formulate a plan to obtain supplies from nearby homes.

Some of these soldiers are from the area. They know this landscape and the people who live in these homes. Now, any field they cross might expose them to gun fire. Any home they enter might betray them  to the occupying German soldiers. It’s a dangerous job trying to get some supplies from their fellow countrymen.

Two soldiers are called upon to do just that: Sotnikov (played by Boris Plotnikov) and Ryback (played by Vladimir Gostyukhin). They’re both hungry and tired and cold, but it’s clear that Ryback has more will to fight and survive. He’s not going to give up. We wonder about Sotnikov, though. He looks like any little thing might push him over, and he has a cough that sounds fatal all on its own, given the cold surroundings, but that also could call the attention of nearby German soldiers.

Here is Sotnikov as evening falls on their first night away.

He and Rybak have just entered a home where they know the man has been working with the Germans. Rybak is threatening, and Sotnikov leans against the wall and looks like he might sleep at any moment. I won’t go into the details of what happens in that home.

As Rybak and Sotnikov try to find their way back to their unit, they run into trouble. It’s agonizing, honestly, to watch Ryback try to drag Sotnikov to safety. You can feel the cold are tearing apart your lungs, the ground swallowing you up. Shepitko really was a master at her craft.

When it finally looks like they might have a safe — and slightly warm — haven, more German soldiers show up.

Ultimately captured, they are hauled over the beautiful but terrifying landscape to a nearby town where the German forces are looking to maintain their psychological control over the locals by hanging any troublemakers.

The film has been captivating up to this point, but it is here where it truly begins its ascent. It does so by showing us the utter depths of human history. Here we meet a local schoolteacher who is now collaborating with the Germans, torturing his countrymen in order to pull out information about where the partisan soldiers are located. This man is Portnov and is played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, one of my favorite faces given the number of fantastic roles he played for Tarkovsky. What a gifted actor, to play both the saintly Andre Rublev and the devilish Portnov.

Rybak and Sotnikov have to explore their morality and their will to survive. This seems simple as I write it. Certainly this has been done before, and often we are struck by a sentimental hammer that makes us honor the self-sacrificing soldier who refuses to give up his unit. It’s more complicated here, though. Rybak is strong, and he wants to survive; he’s more susceptible to persuasion than Sotnikov. That said, we can’t call him evil because we’ve seen how much he’s put himself at risk to help Sotnikov, for one. Sotnikov is deliberately portrayed as transcendent, but he has little strength left. That’s not to say that either has easy decisions to make. Those are just complicating layers as we look at the horror they’ve encountered.

This is one of my favorite films. It’s as powerful, if not more so, now than when I first watched it. Again, I’m thrilled it has gotten its own hi-def release from The Criterion Collection. Not only is the film beautiful to see restored, but the disc comes stacked with valuable supplements analyzing the film as well as the life and work of Shepitko, who sadly died not long after its release. After she died, her husband, the fellow master director, Elem Klimov made a documentary called Larisa in tribute to her; this release includes that along with a nice introduction by their son, Anton.

I’m really just thrilled about this release, if you can’t tell. Clearly this post must end with my highest recommendation.

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