Passion Play

Zack Hatfield on Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977)

Larisa Shepitko, The Ascent, 1977, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 111 minutes. Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov).

LARISA SHEPITKO began work on The Ascent (1977) when she was recovering from a severe spinal injury and pregnant, seized by an afflatus of fear. “I was facing death for the first time,” the Ukrainian director told an interviewer in June 1979. “Like anyone in such a situation, I was looking for my own formula of immortality.” In doing so, she reached for one of the most immortal tales ever told, transposing the Passion of Jesus to the freezing hinterland of Nazi-occupied Belorussia. A Dostoevskian psychodrama of sacrifice and betrayal, The Ascent is her most visually accomplished film, her bleakest, and tragically, her last: In July 1979, Shepitko was killed in a car accident at age forty-one, leaving behind four features. Although long eclipsed by her peers in the Soviet new wave who surfaced from the Khrushchev Thaw—among them her VGIK classmates Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Parajanov, and (eventual husband) Elem Klimov—the filmmaker has undergone a small revival in recent years, culminating now with the Criterion Collection’s enshrinement of The Ascent, the summit of Shepitko’s foreshortened cinema of endurance.

Loosely adapted from a novella by Vasily Bykov, the film unfolds sparely in grisaille against a purgatorial canvas of snow. Two Russian partisans—an asthmatic schoolteacher, Sotnikov, and hearty soldier, Rybak (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin, in remarkable screen debuts)—decamp their starving unit in the wilderness to search for provisions, only to end up captured by Germans, interrogated by a sadistic Belorussian-turncoat-cum-Grand-Inquisitor (played by Tarkovsky regular Anatoly Solonitsyn), and ultimately escorted to the gallows, where one partisan embraces martyrdom on behalf of his motherland and the other crosses over to Belorussia’s collaborationist police, who make him an accomplice to his stoic partner’s execution.

Shepitko was a great evangelist of the human face. Framed in classical Academy ratio, The Ascent dramatizes violence not through explosions and gunplay (the lone extended battle scene occurs as the opening credits roll), but through a claustral treatment of physiognomy, Vladimir Chukhnov and Pavel Lebeshev’s camerawork seemingly inspired by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), but mostly handheld. Impassioned close-ups abound, entreat, accuse—those of Rybak and Sotnikov, but also the raft of other souls whose fates have become miserably entwined with theirs. In its tendency to iconize and graven, the movie often resorts to overly schematic symbolism (Plotnikov, who died at age seventy last month, was specifically cast for his likeness to Orthodox depictions of Christ), but there are just as many moments of startling nuance and grace. For instance, when a stationary long shot records the procession grimly mounting a steep hill toward Golgotha, a boy races down the side to retrieve a runaway toboggan, a jarring evocation of childhood that sits uneasily alongside a detail just a couple of minutes later, when someone will find a crate for a young Jewish girl to stand on so that the noose will reach. In the film’s most indelible composition, a rapt low-angled shot clings to Sotnikov’s heavenward visage, wavering between light and shadow, as a horse-drawn sleigh drags the captives to a prison camp, the camera’s gaze finally surrendering focus to a leaden horizon of snow.

Succumbing to the harrowing subzero winter was crucial in realizing the almost abreactive authenticity pursued by cast and crew, who understood the project as a way to relive, and reveal, familial traumas. Like Shepitko’s diploma film, Heat (1963), completed against medical advice amid the sickening, celluloid-melting temperatures of the Kazakh steppe, The Ascent figures the natural world as an extension of self, its images of blizzardly, unnavigable expanse augmented by sonic motifs of trampled snow and whistling wind. A climate of shifting affinities. More than Sotnikov and his fellow prisoners, it is the quisling Rybak—cowardly, but also fraternal and kindhearted, as evidenced in an early scene in which he breathes warmly on his comrade’s head, frozen to a tree—with whom we begrudgingly identify. Aghast at his decision to collaborate, he will eventually try to hang himself in an outhouse with his belt, but cannot, cursed with his own survival.

In offering a shattered reflection of heroism during the so-called Great Patriotic War, The Ascent forms a diptych with Shepitko’s theatrical debut, the Bergmanesque Wings (1966), another work numbingly alive to the costs of perseverance. Its middle-aged subject is a veteran female fighter pilot (a mesmerizing Maya Bulgakova) who struggles to connect in civilian society; haunted by the memory of her fallen lover, she yearns mainly to once more slip the surly bonds of earth. A dreamlike study of postwar disillusionment and spiritual hunger, the title received a limited release and was eventually banned. The Ascent, by contrast, premiered internationally at the 1977 Berlinale, where it collected the Golden Bear, and emerged unscathed by censors in the irreligious USSR—in part because certain men in power had watched and seen, or believed they saw, themselves.

Not all of her compatriots were impressed. “Even the lighting is calculated to instill the performances with meaning,” Tarkovsky lamented in his 1984 treatise Sculpting in Time, using the movie to issue an edict: “Never try to convey your idea to the audience.” In fact, The Ascent compels as a document of ideological indeterminacy, simultaneously indulging and refuting its alternate interpretations as Bolshevik propaganda, biblical allegory, and veiled anti-Stalinist critique. It would find a more sympathetic viewer in Susan Sontag, who, writing in a 2002 New Yorker essay, simply declared The Ascent “the most affecting film about the horror of war I know.” Curiously, the same endorsement would appear the following year in Regarding the Pain of Others, only the word “horror” had been exchanged for “sadness.” Perhaps Sontag wanted to reserve “horror” for Klimov’s better-known antiwar epic, Come and See (1985), to which The Ascent is often compared—excessively so. Although both masterworks are set in the same time and place, Klimov orchestrated a sweeping, surreal dirge of meaningless suffering, while Shepitko asks us to imagine our own complicity, as unfathomed as the identical empty fields of snow that are the first and last thing we see. An end, but also a beginning.

The Ascent is available to stream on Criterion Channel and will be released on Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection on January 26.