A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

Boris Plotnikov in The Ascent
In some ways, The Ascent is the movie that the overpraised The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015) could and perhaps should have been: a rewarding but harrowing story, made without flashy technology, that asks as much of the viewer as it did of the actors and crew. Made under extreme winter weather conditions -- temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below zero -- in January 1974, it tells the story of two Russian partisans in World War II, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukin), who go in search of food for their small group of fellow resistance fighters. When they're spotted by some German soldiers, Sotnikov kills one but is wounded in the leg. Through deep and blinding snow -- there's a memorable scene in which Rybak has to thaw a frozen Sotnikov with his own breath -- Rybak helps Sotnikov reach a cabin where a young woman, Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova), who lives alone there with her three children, helps them hide in the attic. But they're discovered by the Germans and taken to their headquarters in a Russian village, where the head of the collaborating Russian police, Portnov (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), interrogates them. Portnov tortures Sotnikov first, branding a star onto his chest, but Sotnikov stoically resists. When Rybak is brought in, he assumes that Sotnikov has already told everything, so he proceeds to give Portnov as much information as he has. To his dismay, he is sentenced to death along with Sotnikov, Demchikha, and two others. Sotnikov, gravely ill, confesses that he killed the German and maintains that he alone of the five deserves execution. Rybak, on the other hand, persuades Portnov that he could be of use as a collaborating policeman, and is spared execution. After the others are hanged, Rybak becomes the target of the contempt of the witnessing villagers, who mutter "Judas" at him. Torn by guilt, he tries to hang himself but fails, and at the end is left to his misery. This was the last film by Larisa Shepitko, who died in an automobile accident at the age of 41. She and her actors and crew underwent great hardships filming it, coming down with frostbite, but the film was almost suppressed by the Soviet authorities, who thought it was too much of a Christian parable. In fact, Shepitko had insisted on an actor who resembled traditional images of Christ, and Plotnikov's lean, ascetic appearance is heightened by the cinematography of Vladimir Chukhnov and Pavel Lebeshev, especially as Sotnikov stands with the noose around his neck at the film's climax. Fortunately, Shepitko and her husband, director Elem Klimov, were able to gain the support of former World War II partisans who testified to the veracity and emotional power of the film. The screenplay was adapted by Shepitko and Yuri Klepikov from a novel by Vasiliy Bykov.